Spain: Tradition and Enlightenment I

Portrait of Carlos III by Goya, 1786-1788

In February 1701, Madrid gave enthusiastic welcome to teenaged King Philip V. Philip employed mostly Spaniards on his Council of State, though he did include Frenchmen. Confused by the problems of government, he corresponded with his grandfather Louis XIV in search of advice. Cardinal Portocarrero presided over government, and the Cortes of Castile met in grand assembly and voted the king money. In late summer Philip journeyed to Catalonia to meet his bride, thirteen-year-old Maria Luisa of Savoy. The Catalan Corts voted him a rich subsidy, despite strong separatist sentiment. Philip married Maria Luisa at Figueras; the young couple were soon smitten with each other. Full of energy, she gave the sometimes melancholy Philip crucial support. Even more crucial was the chief lady of her household, the princess of Ursins, handpicked by Louis XIV. Already aged sixty, Ursins arguably saved the Spanish throne for the Bourbon dynasty through her astuteness.

The Habsburgs of Vienna had not given Spain up, and Austrian armies marched on Philip V’s Italian possessions. Louis XIV provoked the English and Dutch into war when he sent French troops into the Spanish Netherlands to secure them for Philip. Thus erupted in 1702 the War of the Spanish Succession, which arrayed the Grand Alliance of Emperor Leopold, England, the Dutch, Savoy, and Portugal against Spain and France. Philip left his tender bride as regent in Spain and hurried with Spanish troops to defend his Italian possessions.

Philip’s victories in Italy temporarily saved Naples and Sicily for his crown, but the English navy sank Spain’s treasure fleet off Vigo. Emperor Leopold proclaimed his younger son, Archduke Charles, as King Charles III of Spain. Charles provided a rallying point for Spaniards who opposed the House of Bourbon and feared Philip would extend to Spain the centralization of government apparent in Louis XIV’s France. Many grandees feared the loss of influence over their provinces, while dominions subject to the Crown of Aragon feared the loss of autonomy. Philip hurried back to Spain to shore up his government against growing unrest. Louis XIV sent him French troops, commanded by the duke of Berwick, illegitimate son of deposed King James II of England.

In 1704 an English fleet landed Charles III in Portugal, then surprised Gibraltar and accepted its surrender in Charles’s name. In 1705 an army of Portuguese, English, and Dutchmen invaded Spain, while an English fleet bombarded Barcelona into submission. Austrian and English troops occupied it for Charles III, cheered by Catalan separatists. Charles reached Barcelona in November to find that Valencia and much of Aragon had also rallied to him. The allied armies next converged on Madrid and forced Philip and his queen to flee to Burgos. In June the allies paraded into Madrid and by late summer held Zaragoza. But the people of Castile proved hostile to them and made their situation tenuous, despite their victories in the field. Philip V acknowledged Castile’s loyalty and clung doggedly to his throne. Allied troops, isolated by Berwick’s reinforced army and popular hostility, abandoned Madrid late in 1706. Philip remained with Berwick; the queen returned to Madrid to cheers. In the spring of 1707, Berwick defeated the allies at Almansa and drove them from Aragon and Valencia. Philip deprived Aragon and Valencia of their traditional privileges and institutions as punishment for rebellion. In both kingdoms, the opposition had been undermined by conflicts between nobles and commoners. On both he imposed Castilian forms of government. That summer, the queen gave birth to an heir, Prince Luis. She bore a second son, Fernando, in 1713.

In 1708 Charles III married in Barcelona and proved as stubborn as Philip. Though most of Spain seemed secure in Philip’s hands, the English took Minorca. In 1709 Louis XIV sought to end the war. He agreed to abandon Philip and even to subsidize the allies but denied their request for French troops to aid them against his grandson.

The princess of Ursins refused Louis’s command to return to France and remained with Philip and Maria Luisa to bolster their morale and rally support. Alone, Philip’s army of Spaniards and a few Irishmen could not with stand the allies. Philip again abandoned Madrid, and Charles III marched in, welcomed by none but a few disgruntled grandees. The general population, disgusted by so many Protestants in the allied army, remained loyal to Philip V.

In 1710 French soldiers again joined Philip’s Spaniards after Louis XIV rejected the allies’ terms. Together Spanish and French forces soon had the allies in retreat. In 1711, Charles III’s older brother, Emperor Joseph, died, and Charles inherited Austria and was elected Emperor Charles VI. He returned to Vienna but did not yield his claim to Spain. He thus alarmed his allies with the specter of the European empire of Charles V all over again. Philip, in contrast, renounced all rights to France. Because the allies were as war weary as their enemies, they ignored Charles VI and opened peace negotiations at Utrecht, where in 1713 a treaty was signed by everybody but Charles, who settled a year later. By the Peace of Utrecht, Philip kept Spain and its overseas possessions. Charles VI received Naples, Milan, Sardinia, and the Spanish Netherlands, which became the Austrian Netherlands. The duke of Savoy got Sicily. England won trading concessions in the Spanish empire, including the lucrative African slave trade, and kept Gibraltar and Minorca.

In 1714 Philip reconquered Barcelona. To punish the Catalans, he stripped Catalonia of its ancient privileges, as he had stripped Aragon and Valencia of theirs, and went further, suppressing its universities.

Bourbon Spain was no longer a union of crowns but had become a unified kingdom. It had its capital in Madrid, centralized departments of government, and a single Cortes rendered largely ceremonial. The historic kingdoms became administrative regions and were each subdivided, giving Spain some thirty provinces. The old organization of government by councils, given to passing the buck among councillors, gave way to a government of ministries, each headed by a single responsible minister, on the French model. Although unpopular and associated with Finance Minister Jean Orry, a Frenchman, the reforms in government and finance were effective and doubled Philip’s annual revenues. Not happy with centralized government, the old grandees largely withdrew from public service, though they maintained palaces in the capital for its social whirl. Philip and his Bourbon successors proved generous in bestowing new titles on their public servants and soon created a titled nobility beholden to them. From Madrid the ministries worked to revive the economy of Spain and rebuild its army and navy.

Tuberculosis took Philip’s queen in February 1714, which left him depressed. Government routine carried no interest for him. His clinging to the aged princess of Ursins became ludicrous, and he was urged to marry again. An ambitious Italian cleric, Giulio Alberoni, agent in Madrid for the duke of Parma, persuaded Ursins that Elizabeth Farnese, Parma’s stepdaughter and heir, was the right match for Philip. When Elizabeth arrived in Spain, Alberoni met her at the frontier and gained her confidence. At her first interview with Ursins, she had the old princess packed out of the kingdom. She soon dominated Philip, and in 1716, she bore his son, Carlos, for whom she expected Parma, if not more.

Alberoni, backed by the queen, emerged from the Parmesan embassy to become in effect chief minister of Spain. The pope confirmed him as bishop of Malaga and in 1717 made him a cardinal. Aware that Austrian rule in Emperor Charles VI’s Italian possessions made people yearn for the good old days of Spanish government, Elizabeth and Alberoni sent the rebuilt Spanish fleet with troops aboard to reconquer Sardinia and Sicily. The English, who feared the revival of Spanish naval power in the Mediterranean, overwhelmed the raw Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro. Alberoni threatened to send the Stuart pretender, James III, in a Spanish armada against England and its new Hanoverian king, George I. But the rest of Europe, France included, ganged up on Spain and forced it to withdraw from Sardinia and Sicily. Alberoni was sacked. In 1720, by the Peace of the Hague, Philip V and Emperor Charles gave up their claims to each other’s territories, and all agreed that Elizabeth’s son Carlos would inherit Parma. Charles VI joined Sicily to Naples, to reconstitute the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the duke of Savoy got Sardinia.

The energies Spain showed in rebuilding its army and navy were indicative of a return to prosperity. The population, measured at 7.5 million at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, would pass the 9 million mark by midcentury. Emigration to the Americas averaged 15,000 hopeful folk a year, and Spain’s shipping and American trade revived. In Madrid competent statesmen, such as Jose Patino and the marquis of la Ensenada, gave firm direction to government. Queen Elizabeth Farnese continued to connive, now for her second son, Felipe. The king kept his dignity in public and alternated between bouts of hunting and fits of deep depression.

The royal couple built the extravagant summer palace of San Ildefonso de La Granja, with its soaring fountains, on a forested slope above Segovia. There Philip hankered to retire, and in January 1724, he abdicated in favor of sixteen-year-old Luis. Luis died that August, and Philip V dutifully resumed the throne, although his fits of depression continued. Elizabeth’s moment came in 1733, when the War of the Polish Succession allowed her to further her ambitions for Carlos. With the first Bourbon family compact she got French support. Carlos marched from Parma, aided by Spanish troops and a fleet, and chased the Austrians from Naples. He obtained the Two Sicilies by the Peace of Vienna in 1738, at the price of Parma to Austria.

A mire in 1734 gutted the gloomy old Alcazar of Madrid, which Philip hated, and allowed him and his queen to begin construction of the current royal palace. Philip’s energies were revived when the War of Jenkins’ Ear with England erupted in 1739 over disputed commercial rights. It began after a Spanish coast guardsman in the Caribbean sliced off the ear of an English smuggler named Jenkins and in 1740 merged into the War of Austrian Succession. Elizabeth saw the chance to recover Parma and in 1743 dispatched Felipe to Italy with a Spanish army, under the tutelage of the marquis of la Ensenada. Felipe conquered it and by the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) became duke of Parma.

Philip V died in 1746, and Fernando VI, his surviving son by Maria Luisa of Savoy, succeeded to the throne. Fernando retained the public servants of his father’s reign and the successors to office they groomed. He gave Spain ten years of peace and prosperity. Catalonia, after a painful recovery, once more flourished economically, and the trade of Barcelona grew. Barcelona’s shipping linked a lively economy that included the Balearic Islands, the thriving orchards of Valencia, and the Andalusian coast as far west as Cadiz, where it met the American trade, now opened to all Spaniards by the Bourbons. Programs of road building begun under Philip V restored wheeled carts and wagons drawn by mules and bullocks to inland commerce. La Ensenada directed a detailed census to provide data on Spain’s economic strengths and weaknesses and aid in the reform of tax policy. Although conservative opposition blocked tax reform, Spain’s improving economy generated more revenues, and when Fernando died, he left the treasury with a surplus that equaled a half year’s ordinary income. Fernando also extended the crown’s authority over the Church through the Concordat of 1753 with the pope, which clarified and amplified the king’s power to nominate bishops for Spain’s dioceses. Fernando and his queen, Barbara of Braganza, cultivated the arts and employed Domenico Scarlatti as their court composer. Childless but devoted to his queen, Fernando suffered a mental collapse when she died, and he died in 1759, a year after she did.

And so Elizabeth Farnese’s eldest son Carlos, king of the Two Sicilies, became king of Spain as Carlos III. He abdicated the Sicilies to a younger son, Ferdinando, and embarked from Naples for Spain with his heir, now prince of Asturias and also named Carlos. Carlos III meant to continue the improvement of government and brought with him several of his best Italian ministers. Cognizant of the ideas on kingship in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, he stands prominent in the ranks of rulers called “enlightened despots” by history. According to theory, the enlightened despot should promote rational government, employ the best and brightest men available to assist him, regardless of their social status, and use his authority to sup port them. To Carlos this just seemed common sense. Carlos also tried to make good use of the Church in his programs and utilized the Concordat of 1753 to provide him the bishops he wanted. Traditionalists and the Jesuits, who opposed what they saw as too much government intervention in Church affairs, branded his bishops and supporters as “regalists.” Regalists called their enemies “ultramontane” (people who looked “over the mountains” to Rome), suggesting they put pope over king.

While most Enlightenment intellectuals downplayed the role of religion in public life, most ordinary people believed that sovereigns ruled by the grace of God; religion remained a major prop of government alongside habit, personal loyalties, patriotism, and fear. The Catholic Church and its Inquisition enjoyed enormous influence in Spain. The clergy numbered some 200,000 men and women in a population of nearly 10 million. Huge public religious devotions remained strong, even as they waned in other parts of Europe. Throngs turned out for Holy Week processions, and every region had its pilgrimages to local shrines, such as the romeria of El Rocio in Andalusia. Reports of miracles and apparitions were common. Carlos III was devout and once attracted cheering crowds in Madrid when he gave up his carriage to a priest carrying the Sacrament to a dying person.

The Church was also the single largest landowner in the realm. Enlightenment intellectuals thought its land management backward and preferred to put land in the hands of entrepreneurs who would make it more productive. The regime of Carlos III encouraged the spread of local economic societies of amigos del pals (friends of the country), who discussed the improvement of agriculture as well as of industry and education. Yet any talk that threatened the place of the Church ran into opposition at once.

Carlos III not only wanted to continue the economic improvement of Spain; he also wanted Spain to play the role of a great power. He signed another Bourbon family compact with France and in 1762 belatedly entered the Seven Years War. Great Britain promptly seized Manila and Havana. To recover them at the Peace of Paris in 1763, Carlos had to make formal concession of Gibraltar, Minorca, and all of Florida to Britain, and Uruguay to Portugal. In compensation, France, stripped by Britain of Quebec, conceded New Orleans and the vast Louisiana territory to Spain.

Increased treasure from Mexico helped finance the war, as well as other reforms, but it also caused inflation. In 1766 the rising price of bread led to popular unrest and rioting that took a peculiar turn in Madrid. One of Carlos’s ministers from Naples, the tactless marquis of Esquilache, had revived a ban on the broad-brimmed hats and long cloaks popular among Spanish men, on the argument that criminal elements used the hats to hide the face and the long cloaks to conceal weapons. Spaniards, he decreed, should wear tricorn hats and proper skirted coats like other Europeans. Young toughs called majos took to flaunting the ban by sporting the forbidden hats and cloaks. Clashes broke out with soldiers ordered to enforce the decree and quickly led to widespread violence. For two days riots continued unabated until, with the aid of Madrid’s clergy, Carlos began the restoration of order by revoking the decree, sacking Esquilache, and promising to deal with the high price of bread. He appointed the count of Aranda to head the government.

While Carlos and the government in Madrid followed the latest European fashions, and Spain’s army and navy looked imposing, foreign travelers increasingly remarked on the differences between Spain and other parts of western Europe and northern Italy. They found many of the nobility illinformed about the world and indifferent to the new ideas spawned by the Enlightenment. They described the larger population as priestridden, ignorant, superstitious, lazy, and unclean. Their belief that Spaniards were lazy likely grew from what they saw of the indolence of too many of the well-todo. Most Spaniards worked hard to make a living, although the rhythm of the seasons in the countryside required more work at some times than at others. To be sure, the extreme heat of summer could be paralyzing. Spanish cities probably had no more idlers than most other metropolises of the times, but the better weather of Spain, as of southern Italy, made idlers more conspicuous.


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