Monday, January 2, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Amadeo I of Spain

Amongst all those who have worn the crown of Spain, mention King Amadeo I and you will probably be met with a denouncement or an insulting joke. Yet, few seem to really know very much about the monarch usually dismissed as, “the Italian”. He is, in general, not well regarded and yet, when asked precisely why that is, the best answer anyone can usually come up with was that he had no business being King of Spain in the first place. A valid point, yet it is partly that very point which makes me somewhat sympathetic toward the man simply because King Amadeo would probably have agreed with it. King Amadeo I is remembered in history for a number of reasons. He was the first and only prince of the House of Savoy to sit on the throne of Spain, his reign was one of the shortest in Spanish history and his downfall ushered in the First Spanish Republic. And it was all for a crown he did not particularly want. King Amadeo I may have been the unluckiest King of Spain and he was also probably the most reluctant. In many ways, his reign is an example of how far from practical reality ideas can be that look perfectly reasonable on paper.

The Italian prince who would be King of Spain was born on May 30, 1845 in Turin (then part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia), the second son of King Victor Emmanuel II (later the first King of Italy) and his wife Archduchess Adelaide of Austria. When he was born he was given the title of Duke of Aosta, the first to hold that title since 1802. He had a fairly normal upbringing for a prince of the House of Savoy with an education that tended to favor duty, destiny and the heroic legacy of the Royal Family above all other subjects. In 1867, with the Kingdom of Italy having been created, it was decided that it was time for him to marry. Not unusually he had very little say in the matter. His father wanted him wed to a German princess for political reasons (France having gone cold, Prussia was being looked to as an ally against Austria) but that proved difficult and Francesco Cassins finally persuaded the King to accept Donna Maria Vittoria dal Pozzo (a daughter of the Piedmontese aristocracy) as a bride for his second son, despite not being of royal rank. So, on May 30, 1867 the two were married.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean in Spain, revolution was afoot. Ever since the accession of Queen Isabella II the country had been torn by civil war. Three factions emerged over the course of her reign; the Carlists who favored the royal line of the late King Fernando VII’s brother Don Carlos, the moderates who backed Isabella II and the revolutionaries who wanted to do away with the monarchy altogether. The Carlists were defeated in a series of civil wars and the revolutionaries were kept somewhat contented by movement to the left but Queen Isabella II eventually alienated her moderate supporters. She proved too Catholic and autocratic for their tastes (as well as having other problems) and in the end she was too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals. In September of 1868 the Queen was deposed and sent into exile by a group of liberal officers led by General Juan Prim (who had earlier led the Spanish contingent in the punitive expedition against Mexico alongside France and Britain which ultimately resulted in the short-lived monarchy of Maximilian). General Prim began looking for a candidate for the Spanish throne but had little luck.

The Cortes voted, by a considerable margin, that a monarchy was preferable to a republic but finding the right king proved difficult. Marshal Francisco Serrano was chosen as regent while General Prim cast about for someone to accept the crown of Spain. Dom Fernando, former King of Portugal, turned down the offer. Marshal Espartero, former Prime Minister, likewise turned down the throne and when the 15-year-old Duke of Genoa was approached with the offer his mother rejected it on his behalf on the grounds that Spain was too dangerous. It was not exactly an enticing prospect considering the many civil wars Spain had gone through, how bitterly divided against each other the Spanish people were and few royals would be eager to settle on a country that had just driven out their last monarch. The Prussian Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was next approached and not only were the Prussians not interested, the French objected to the very idea of a Prussian on the throne of Spain and the offer helped set off the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Finally, someone suggested Prince Amadeus, Duke of Aosta, second son of the King of Italy.

Prince Amadeus was not attracted by the offer and was inclined to turn it down. Yet, his father, King Victor Emmanuel II, urged him to accept. He thought it would be great to have the House of Savoy reigning over Spain and Italy and envisioned his son restoring Spain to her former glory but this time as a more “modern” liberal constitutional monarchy, moderate and reasonable with no extremism from the left or the right. As he had done in Italy, surely his son could do in Spain, and wouldn’t it be glorious for Savoy kings to hold sway over the western and central Mediterranean areas? Amadeus was still less than impressed and preferred to remain in Italy pursuing his own pleasure than venturing off to a war-torn and notoriously temperamental country with which he had no connection and about which he knew practically nothing. However, his father was persuasive and the Spanish government was somewhat impatient as well, quickly running out of options and hoping to establish a new Royal Family before either the Carlists rebelled again or the revolutionaries started swaying people toward a republic. The Spanish Council of Ministers made their formal proposal and on October 19, 1870 Prince Amadeus agreed. On November 16, 1870 the Spanish Cortes formally voted on the election of the Italian prince to become King of Spain. 193 favored the Duke, 64 favored a republic and 22 favored another candidate. The issue was settled. It seemed.

The King pays his respects to General Prim
The Duke of Aosta, now King-elect, sailed for Spain in late December and there were bad omens from the start. Upon his arrival he learned that his chief supporter, General Juan Prim, had been assassinated. On January 2, 1871 there was a blinding snowstorm blowing when he arrived in Madrid to formally take his oath and be sworn in as His Catholic Majesty King Amadeo I of Spain. Like his father, King Amadeo was a man of simple tastes with no great love for pomp and splendor. When shown about the vast royal palace and informed that he, his wife and two sons were to each have separate households, the King informed them in no uncertain terms that he would stay with his family -and that was that. He set about his task with energy and determination, living in very humble surroundings, tackling the pressing issues of his state while his wife the Queen busied herself with charitable causes in Madrid. Some close to him were impressed by his calm determination to do his duty, make his father proud, and restore some luster to the Kingdom of Spain. For many, however, he was from the very first a figure of fun. His lack of knowledge of Spanish history and culture were laughed at and upper class Spaniards took to calling their new Italian monarch the “Intruder King” while the lower classes referred to him as “King Macaroni”.

Some disliked him simply because he was an Italian, a foreigner, while others had less nationalistic but more political reasons. The Carlists, naturally, would never support him as they would support no one but their own pretender to the throne and the revolutionaries, just as naturally, would never support him either as they would never support any monarch at all. His only base of support were the moderate progressives and even they were becoming more and more divided. King Amadeo did his best to come to an understanding of his new country, rising at six every morning to read the papers, including Carlist and republican periodicals, never spending more than an hour at meals, no matter how prominent the dinner guests and endeavoring to be as frugal as possible while still being generous to those in need. He paid the pensions of the household of the deposed Isabella II (which surprised many) and gave an average of $17,500 per month to charity. His tours around the country, in the past always a state expense, were always paid from his private funds.

Foreign observers remarked very favorably on the new royal couple. The Queen was intelligent, good-natured and compassionate while the King was dutiful, practical, hard working and tactful. It was also noted that, while he never took the pledge, he avoided alcohol and only ever drank water. The honest, however, could not ignore the looming obstacles that stood in the way of the King and Queen no matter how much they admired the pair personally. Periodic Carlist rebellions continued to break out, revolutionaries poured scorn on the very idea of a monarchy, money was scarce, the politicians bickering and often corrupt and in the Caribbean island of Cuba, Spain’s beloved “Pearl of the Antilles” there were growing calls for independence and an increasingly covetous gaze coming from the United States. Even the moderate progressives, the closest thing King Amadeo had to a core of support, began to tear each other apart. Many had risen to office during the reign of Isabella II through courting favors, buying and selling influence and rigging elections and the result was an overall low caliber of public servants who occupied the transitory offices of government.

In 1872 bitterness between the progressive factions reached a zenith and the foundation of the new Spanish Savoy monarchy began to crumble from beneath the feet of Amadeo I. In Basque and Catalan the Carlists rose up again in another rebellion and revolutionary republicans began to take to the streets in cities across Spain, starting out as protests but quickly turning into violent riots. The army proved to be as divided as the other segments of society and when the artillery corps went on strike, at such a critical time, the suddenly alarmed government demanded that King Amadeo do something about it. With two-thirds of the country against him, members of the remaining third were calling on him to start shooting down his adopted people. King Amadeo finally determined that he had had enough. He had not come to Spain for this. In the chance that it would do some good he ordered the artillery to return to duty and then, on February 11, 1873 turned in his formal abdication to the government. In his parting speech before the Cortes an exasperated ex-King Amadeo famously declared the Spanish people to be ungovernable and walked out. Later that night the First Spanish Republic was formally declared.

A thoroughly disgusted Amadeus was relieved to return to his native Italy and become Duke of Aosta again. If the Spanish were glad to see him go, they were probably still not so glad as he was to leave. He probably felt somewhat betrayed and he had reason to. His last Prime Minister later became one of the most ardent and troublesome republicans in Spain, which would suggest that he was less than fully committed to his sovereign. He was told he had been brought to Spain to lead a free and liberal constitutional monarchy, yet many of his supposed supporters turned against him when he refused to grant them dictatorial powers to deal with their enemies. The impossibility of the situation he faced comes into even clearer focus considering that the First Spanish Republic that replaced him lasted less than a year and was torn by three simultaneous civil wars and a revolution in Cuba. In the end, a ‘compromise monarchy’ was restored in the person of King Alfonso XII, son of the still disliked Isabella II. Prince Amadeus, Duke of Aosta, former King of Spain, contented himself with a much more peaceful life in Turin.

The marriage of Amadeus and Princess Maria Vittoria had not been without its problems. The Duke was not always a faithful husband and when Maria Vittoria once complained to her father-in-law about it (himself not a man of pristine marital fidelity) she was told more or less that it was not her place to judge her husband and not to make a fuss. Hardly romantic, but the two seemed to settle down and get along well enough and become an effective partnership. They had three sons, the last born the same year they left Spain. The trauma of that event, the stress of the political situation and the arduous journey all conspired to take the life of the former Queen of Spain. Later, Prince Amadeo married his niece, Princess Maria Letizia Bonaparte, by whom he had one more son in 1889. When Amadeus had first returned to Italy he was given a rapturous welcome but his marriage to his niece, who was some 22 years younger than he, caused a scandal. Most agreed that Prince Amadeus loved the girl but that the Princess was marrying simply to get away from the rule of her mother. The appropriate papal dispensation was obtained but Pope Leo XIII later declared that such dispensations were, from that time on, strictly a thing of the past.

The Bonaparte family was happy enough with the marriage as it put their name on the front page of every newspaper in Europe and marked the first time since 1859 that a Bonaparte had married a member of a reigning Royal Family. Interest in the late French Empire resurged in France and some news sheets commented that a restoration of the Napoleonic government might have been possible. This was certainly not the first time such royal relatives married, and his second marriage is not something most remember about former King Amadeo I, but regardless of how many strange royal unions one may know about -it’s just rather creepy. However, for the Duke of Aosta, his life as a newly remarried man was not to last long. Less than two years after his wedding, at the age of only 44, he died in Turin on January 18, 1890 at the Royal Palace. His descendants would go on to great fame in several instances, and of course they are still around today but the first Duke of Aosta will probably always be most remembered for his brief stint as the one and only Savoy King of Spain.

As we have already stated, history has not tended to be kind to King Amadeo I. Still today, more often than not, he is regarded with derision even though there were many glowing accounts of his efforts under the most difficult of circumstances at the time. Personally, I cannot help but have sympathy for King Amadeo I. Of course he had no genealogical right or claim to the Spanish throne but neither did any of the other candidates under consideration and as odd as some might find the idea of an Italian King of Spain, it is certainly less odd than the idea of a Prussian King of Spain which was also considered. Were he truly an invader or an actual usurper himself I would certainly have a less tolerant view. However, Amadeo I had not sought to become King of Spain, was not at all attracted to the notion and had to be persuaded against his better judgment to accept the position. He inherited a country in the midst of one crisis after another, set in motion many, many years before his arrival, none of which he was responsible for starting and yet which he was expected to deal with. He made a respectable effort to succeed in what was clearly a hopeless situation and refused to break his oath to the constitution and refused to maintain himself by slaughtering his subjects. I cannot blame him for becoming King of Spain, I can only blame the government that imported him. That decision having been made, I can only admire him for doing his best to make the best of a bad situation and place blame on the figures that went before him for reducing Spain to such a state that such a course of action ever arose.


  1. I never fault anyone who tries and makes the best of a Monarchy, I seems he was swimming against the "Progressive" tied, and couldn't make alot of headway.

    Unfortunate, but even still, this proves why we Need Strong Monarchs, not figure heads, or Democratic bodies to slow and/or corrupt the system.

    Even so Spain has once again embrace Monarchy, and I think is better for it.

  2. While constructing my simplified abridged genealogy of the Bonapartes, I came across him as well, and remembered your article here. It's amazing how these people were related. Also, considering the Princess Bonaparte's father wedded into the House of Savoy as well.

  3. I have some sympathy for Amadeo but in retrospect its impossible to see how he could have stayed on the Spanish throne or how the people who installed him thought it could work. There were several things working agains him:

    The Spanish people at large were not going to accept a foreign king (with stronger personal loyalties to a rising rival country) being imposed on them while there were still legitimate Spanish claimants (especially not within living memory - 60 years or so - of Joseph Bonaparte doing the same thing and he had the support of Spanish liberals as well).

    There were too many Bourbons with a better claim out there for Amadeo to establish a stable dynasty- not just Isabella II and her many children, but the Carlists. Napoleon held the Spanish Bourbons in captivity and isolated from anyone who could maneuver for them. Amadeo did not have that luxury.

    For the time -1870 - Amadeo was absolutely of the wrong Catholic dynasty to set up in Spain of all places. I can’t believe no body seemed to consider this. The only way Amadeo could have survived is if Amadeo had pivoted to the right, stressed his biological claims through Ferdinand and Isabella and win the support of the Church. But as the son of Victor Emmanuel II whose government was at that moment making the Pope a “prisoner of the Vatican”, taking over the Pope’s Quirinal Palace as VEII’s own (though VEII personally hated the idea) and confiscating church property left and right for the state coffer, there was no way Amadeo could realistically claim be “His Most Catholic Majesty” and uphold the rights of the Church and of the Pope (which was Spanish policy under Isabella II) with a straight face. Almost any other king from any other dynasty could have done it but Amadeo couldn’t but yet without the Church’s support (traditionally the monarchy’s greatest defenders) he wasn’t going to be able to hold the crown. 

    It was basically a no-win situation all around. And the whole uncle-niece thing was bizarre coming from a dynasty that claimed (at the time) to be so forward-thinking and enlightened in comparison to say the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs.

  4. Some did think of it, and Amadeo certainly wasn't anxious to go to Spain but his father wanted him to be a king (Greece and some other possibilities hadn't worked out) and so he went to be a good son. After returning the first thing Amadeo did was to go to see the Pope to ask forgiveness if he had done wrong (which obviously upset some people at court). I would have liked to have been a fly on that wall. The problem in Spain was that no faction was really strong enough to suppress the other two. Some may have thought that an outsider with no ties to the country could bring them all together but, obviously, they were sorely mistaken.


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