Monday, February 18, 2013

Story of Monarchy: The Phases of Spain

Hailing from a far-flung corner of the empire, in an area that was under the authority of the Spanish Crown longer than any of the five other authorities that have held sway (so far) I have always had a special attachment to the Kingdom of Spain. Yet, many in the English-speaking world are generally unfamiliar with the long and colorful history of Spain or the background of the current Spanish Royal Family. To correct this, and give just a brief overview of a very long story, the history of Spain can be broken up into a number of more manageable phases. As is easiest with most European countries, we can start with the Roman Empire of which Hispania was part. Apart from that, we have the first phase which we will call Visigothic Spain. The Goths, suffice it to say, really got around and as Rome collapsed in the west the Romanized Visigoths entered the Iberian peninsula and eventually took over the place for the most part. This was a Christian kingdom (contested between Catholics and Arians) but was fairly tolerant and included considerable populations of Jews and eventually a sizeable Muslim minority. That would have made the ACLU smile but, in the end, it came back to bite the Visigothic kings as in the fateful year of 711 AD the Muslims of North Africa invaded under the powerful Umayyad Caliphate.

San Fernando III
This marks the beginning of the second (and longest) phase; La Reconquista or “the re-conquest” of Christian Spain from the Muslims. The start of this, the longest war in history, is generally dated around 722 when a Visigothic nobleman named Don Pelayo won the battle of Covadonga and established the Christian Kingdom of Asturias. It was during this long period of nearly continuous conflict that some of the greatest heroes of Spanish history made their names such as St Fernando III of Castile and probably the most famous, “El Cid”. A number of Christian kingdoms rose up and fought each other when not fighting the Moors until finally there stood only Castile and Aragon. These two came together by the marriage of the “Catholic Monarchs” Fernando of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. In 1492 they successfully completed the re-conquest with the capture of the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. That same year, as most know, Christopher Columbus was dispatched on his epic voyage that planted the seeds for what became the vast Spanish colonial empire in the Americas. With Ferdinand and Isabella ruling Spain this also marks the beginning of the united, Catholic Kingdom of Spain (though it was still spoken of in the plural form with local autonomy preserved) which is not without controversy.

Ferdinand and Isabella were determined that Spain would be Catholic and VERY Catholic. Toward that end the (now unnecessarily) notorious Spanish Inquisition was set up, mostly to seek out false converts. The reputation of the Spanish Inquisition has been grossly exaggerated and that is now a matter of documented fact. It should also be kept in mind that Spain had just gone through the longest war in history, which naturally hardened feelings on both sides of the religious divide, and which started off with people of another religion giving aid to an invasion by their co-religionists and the King and Queen were quite naturally determined that such a thing would never happen again. It should also be remembered that, while the Spanish Inquisition was certainly the most “zealous” in Christendom, when you look at all the bloodshed caused by the Wars of Religion in France and the Thirty Years War and Peasants Revolt in Germany and so on and so forth, the Inquisition spared Spain from such horrors and in the end probably saved a great many lives in the long run. Today, modern sensibilities would consider it terribly oppressive, but Spain had tried the tolerance game and got burned because of it. Keep that in mind.

King Felipe II
This brings us to the third phase; Hapsburg Spain -which was pretty sweet. After the reign of the unfortunate Queen Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca) the Spanish throne passed to King Carlos I, better known as the German Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the House of Hapsburg. During his reign and, after his abdication, that of his son King Philip II, Spain reached her peak of wealth, power and prestige and was indisputably the most powerful country in Europe. The Spanish empire continued to expand, victories were won in the Mediterranean, France and the Low Countries and while not every enterprise was a success (like the Spanish Armada -ouch!) there was still not much that could really compare with Spain under Philip II. And, contrary to what you may have heard, King Philip II was a good man and a good monarch, one of the greatest Spanish kings without question. Unfortunately, Spain reached the top with his reign and began to go down, not dramatically but noticeably nonetheless. It was actually under King Philip IV that Spain reached its zenith in terms of sheer imperial size but economic problems persisted and in general the decline continued.

The Hapsburgs were also hampered by a bad quality bloodline and when King Carlos II died without an heir the War of the Spanish Succession was the result. This ushered in phase four: Bourbon Spain. Just like the Bourbon King Louis XIV of France (who was anxious to extend dynastic power into Spain) the Bourbon King Philip V of Spain began centralizing power in a clear break from the de-centralized Spain that had existed before. Some improvements were made but corruption in the lower ranks of civil officials continued to cause economic problems. The “Enlightenment” also brought some benefits but on the whole more problems to Spain. Under King Carlos III Spain was able to regain some previous losses (though Gibraltar remained in British hands) but under Carlos IV the situation grew worse, particularly because of the influence of Manuel de Godoy who was as corrupt as he was incompetent. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars saw Spain conquered by France and cut off from her colonies where movements for independence began to sprout. Eventually things were restored under King Fernando VII but the Spanish empire began to crumble (cheered on by Britain and the United States it must be said).

Queen Isabella II
This brings us to phase five which can be summed up in a single word: disintegration. Fernando VII was determined that his daughter, Queen Isabella II should succeed him, and did not bother about trying to carry this out legally. There was also the Queen, Maria Cristina, who acted as regent for Isabella II when the King died. The King’s brother, Don Carlos, was supported by the conservatives as the rightful monarch and they had the law, tradition and the Church on their side. The result was the first in a series of conflicts called the Carlist Wars which were essentially struggles between the traditionalists of Don Carlos and the liberal absolutists of the Queen Mother Maria Cristina. At a time of great crisis for the Spanish empire, Spain itself was embroiled in civil war which ensured the near total collapse of the empire. The liberals were ultimately victorious but the conflict caused damage that was irreversible. Additionally, the very ideas they championed would prove to be their own undoing. The Carlists (who were on the right side in the opinion of this author) can be commended for never giving in but at the same time must bear their share of the burden for being willing to see Spain wiped out as a great power rather than make amends and move forward. They eventually fragmented but the liberals came apart even faster.

Queen Isabella II was too conservative for many of the liberals and the Carlist conservatives would not have had anything to do with her had she been perfect in every way, which she was not. Unrest, infighting and still the occasionally war with the Carlists became standard procedure for Spain and all industry and economic activity practically ground to a halt. The most genuine monarchists were largely in the Carlist camp and they had not only a large portion of Spain but increasingly most of the European community against them, as most modern-minded people considered that a Carlist victory, a return to royal absolutism and the Inquisition, would be a bad thing. On the liberal side the constant wars over the throne made more and more turn against monarchy itself and embrace republicanism.

King Amadeo I
Ultimately, Queen Isabella II was deposed by her own side and the liberals decided to give monarchy one last chance and start fresh by inviting the second son of the King of Italy to assume the Spanish throne. Reluctantly, he did so as King Amadeo I but by that time Spain was divided between liberal monarchists, Carlist monarchists and republicans with none strong enough to defeat the other two. As the liberal camp fell into further division Spain was in a state of near constant anarchy and it did not take long for King Amadeo I to throw up his hands, declare the country ungovernable and return to Italy. The exit of the Savoy dynasty from Spain brings us to phase six: republicanism. It was 1873 when a mutiny and opposition from almost every side forced out King Amadeo and the first Spanish Republic was declared, consisting mostly of liberals who had formerly been at least nominal monarchists but who had grown disgusted with the institution and more concerned with fighting each other over power than anything else. The Carlists rose in rebellion again but so did more radical leftists who thought the republic did not go far enough. Fortunately, the first effort at a republic for Spain did not last long, though the damage had been done.

Only a year later things were so bad that even many republicans willing declared for the son of Queen Isabella II when he returned to Spain from exile as King Alfonso XII. The Carlists were defeated, a system of constitutional monarchy with liberal and conservative cooperation was established that worked fairly well, at least compared to the anarchy that preceded it and Spain under King Alfonso XII seemed to be on the road to recovery. But, then the King died, the United States declared war on Spain to liberate Cuba and grab what was left of the Spanish empire (Puerto Rico, The Philippines, etc) and the stress of World War I, the Great Depression and so on caused on already bare-bones Spanish economy to practically collapse. In 1931 the second Spanish Republic was declared with King Alfonso XIII forced into exile but never abdicating. What followed was a horrific bloodbath as radical leftist, anti-clerical forces preyed upon everything and everyone associated with traditional Spain. Churches were desecrated, the religious were massacred and, though few realize it, more people were killed in the first months under the republic than during three centuries of the Spanish Inquisition -just to provide a comparison.

Generalissimo Franco
By 1936 a full blown civil war had broken out between the republicans on one side (backed up by the Soviet Union and socialist and communist volunteers from around the world) and the nationalists on the other led by General Francisco Franco. It was a bloody affair with many people involved from outside of Spain. Cruelty was commonplace. Adolf Hitler (in a move he later regretted) sent air support to the nationalists but it was Benito Mussolini who provided the most support with air, naval and considerable ground assistance. In the end, Franco, with his coalition of fascists, Phalangists, Carlists and other monarchists as well as republican nationalists, was victorious. From 1936 to 1975 Generalissimo Francisco Franco was dictator of Spain and this marked the start of phase seven, the last, which can be summed up as “restoration”. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, one government, one law (and in this case, one man) was in total control of the whole of Spain. That fact alone, that Spain was united, at peace and the Spanish were not constantly killing each other caused some immediate improvement. After World War II when the threat of Soviet communism became more evident (as it should have been all along) things improved even more.

Generalissimo Franco restored the monarchy, at least on paper, and named Prince Juan Carlos as his heir to take up the throne after his death. That came in 1975 when King Juan Carlos I was formally sworn in, marking the full and official restoration of the Spanish monarchy. In the aftermath, King Juan Carlos led the transition of Spain from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy, restoring full civil rights, multi-party democracy and even removing the ban on parties known to be hostile to the monarchy. When nationalist elements in the military attempted a coup, the King used his authority as Captain-General to suppress it. In the years that followed, this policy paid huge dividends for King Juan Carlos and the monarchy with the Spanish people from most every background grateful to their monarch for giving them their freedom. Everyone seemed to respect and admire the King and the monarchy seemed to be a safely permanent fixture with the prestige of the King allowing him to exercise considerable influence in spite of the constitutional limitations to his actual power.

King Juan Carlos I & Queen Sofia
That brings us to today. Unfortunately, the liberation that came with the return of the monarchy is increasingly taken for granted. Socialist and republican groups have grown stronger, religious influences have grown weaker, regionalism threatens Spanish unity and even the King and Royal Family are no longer held in universally high regard. When Spain joined the European Union, the influx of easy money caused a boom which, recently, was followed by a collapse. All the evils of modern, secular, leftist Europe hit Spain suddenly and very hard. Street marches and protests now regularly display republican flags, forgetting what horrors (and gross incompetence) the two previous attempts at a republic brought to Spain while the younger generation in particular increasingly uses the very freedoms they enjoy only because of the King to attack the monarchy. It is enough to make one wonder if King Juan Carlos has ever had second thoughts about his bold action in putting down the attempted coup. So far, Spain has accomplished the near impossible of seeing a monarchy that was lost restored to its proper place. It remains to be seen if the public can reconnect with their traditions and a proper loyal love of King and country or turn toward further decline and ruin. In terms of the monarchy, most are now looking at the end of the reign of King Juan Carlos as the ultimate test. He brought the monarchy back to Spain, we can only hope that the institution is strong enough to outlive him.


  1. I adore Spain's long history of Catholicism. The Spanish Dos de Mayo rebellion against Napoleon is among my favorite events in history.

  2. As a Texian, I recognize King Juan Carlos as my rightful (earthly) king, but neverheless, one hears rumors that his Opus Dei tutors would be disappointed with some aspects of his reign, and maybe personal life. The Queen seems to be a model of compassion and probity, however.

  3. King Juan Carlos' declaration on television to Coronel Tejera's rebels to get back to the barracks was an example of how a monarch can influence politics in spite of the collection of lobbyists and sycophants of corporate interests. After Coronel tejera rebelled against the government and declared a pronuciamento like Franco did, it was King Juan Carlos who defused the situation in 1982.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...