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Philip V of Spain

The establishment of a Bourbon prince on the throne of Spain was regarded as the great and final achievement of the reign of Louis XIV. The critics of the regent denounced his failure to act in harmony with that sovereign as the unpardonable error of his administration. It is well, therefore, to consider the character and the policy of the grandson of Louis XIV., who for forty-six years reigned in Spain, exercising an authority uncontrolled either by popular or by aristocratic institutions.

Philip was a youth of seventeen when he was chosen as king of that country by the will of Charles II. Intellectually, he was less developed than befitted his years; of education he had not so much as most boys of ten possess now; in will, in the power to impress himself on men, to control the policy of the great people whom he was called upon to rule, he was deficient to an extraordinary degree; and in all these respects he was much the same when he died, an old man of sixty-three, as when he mounted the throne, a lad of seventeen.

Such a youth was necessarily controlled by those by whom he was surrounded, and Louis XIV. was obliged to give careful attention to their choice, in order to exercise any influence on the affairs of Spain. It was in vain that he wrote his grandson that he must learn to exert his own volition, to be able to say, “I will.” The letters of Louis XIV. to the young king were as judicious as they were kindly, but they were without effect upon the prince to whom they were addressed. Philip continued, however, submissive to the orders which he received. Sometimes he was sullen in his obedience, but he never ventured to disobey his grandfather when the commands were peremptory. He retained also an affection for France and the French, but such a feeling was of small importance in so weak a person. The confidential adviser of his early career wrote: “One could make him sign a league against France with the same facility that he would sign a passport.”

In this feeble character there was one strong passion, but it served only to render the sovereign still more dependent and despicable. He was the most uxorious of men. The most ingenious of comic writers have been unable to portray a condition of marital dependence equal to that of the monarch of the most widely extended empire in the world. The henpecked husband whom we find in fiction appears a man of independent will and fearless character when compared with Philip V. of Spain. His first wife was a woman of sprightliness and capacity. In ruling the kingdom, she found some consolation for a life every moment of which, by day and night, was spent in the society of a taciturn and stupid man. Philip was weak enough to be governed by his wife, and weak enough to be coaxed by others into trying to escape from this subjection. One of the French ambassadors conceived the idea of establishing relations with the Spanish king, of which his female rulers should have no knowledge. Philip sent communications to his grandfather, which were prepared by him and the minister. In these he expressed what he thought were his actual desires. He also sent the ordinary formal letters, which were dictated by his wife, or by Mme. des Ursins when she was in Spain. “Do not put any confidence in the official letters which I shall be obliged to send you, in order not to disturb the peace,” wrote this most weakly of princes.

Louis XIV. had the feelings of a king and of a gentleman, and the spectacle of his grandson confessing that he dared not express his real sentiments, because he was afraid of a disturbance with his wife, was in the highest degree distateful to him. He knew Philip’s character well enough, also, to be sure that this feeble attempt at independence would be short-lived. So it proved. The surreptitious correspondence was discovered. The penalties imposed upon the erring husband are a secret of state, but they were doubtless severe. During the forty years that Philip remained a king, he never again ventured to rebel against the authority of his wives. He now sent a formal recantation of all that he had said in his personal letters, and was forgiven. The correspondence is a curious illustration of the character of those whom the fortune of birth sometimes puts in great places.

In tracing the policy of Philip V. as a ruler, we are naturally obliged to consider the sequence of his wives. His first wife, who was a princess of Savoy, died in February, 1714. In June, he was affianced to a princess of Parma. In September, he was married to her by proxy, and he was greatly distressed at the delays in her journey to Spain. On December 24, she at last reached her impatient spouse. A week later the French chargé d’affaires could truly write, “The queen governs the king despotically.” The authority which she acquired in the honeymoon she never allowed to relax. Her arrival was accompanied by an entire change in the government. She dismissed Mme. des Ursins, without even consulting Philip, and the king dared show no resentment. He earned her favor by implicit obedience to her commands. His life with the new queen was spent in the same manner as with the former one. An existence more monotonous, and apparently more wearisome, could hardly be conceived. It was a perpetual tête-à-tête by day and night, with no variation from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. Sickness of whatever nature was not allowed to be an excuse for separation. Their Catholic majesties rose together, dressed together, rode together, ate their meals together, went to mass together, said their prayers together. The queen was allowed a few moments to herself during her toilet and for her confession. Even that must be brief. The king waited in the next room, and, if he thought that she was occupying too much time in the confession of her sins, he opened the door and called to her. Almost every day the king played at the mall. Three times he went down the long mall in his game, and three times he returned, never more and never less. Though the queen took no part in the sport, she was required to follow him and keep constantly at his left hand. If, in talking with some one, she fell behind even four or five paces, Philip at once turned round and looked at her, and she hastened to resume her place.

Every day, also, the king and queen participated in what was most improperly styled the chase. Hunting, when it requires exercise and skill, and still more when there exists an element of danger for the hunter as well as the hunted, is a sport the manliness of which atones for any appearance of cruelty. It was far otherwise with the butchery which furnished the daily amusement of Philip V. He and his wife were driven to the rendezvous. In the mean time three or four hundred peasants scoured the woods, and drove before them the game of every kind with which these were filled. In due time animals of various sorts began to pass before the inclosure where the king and queen were stationed, and they fired at them as they went by. Nothing came amiss, – boars, wolves, deer, bares, foxes, martins. Some were killed; many more were wounded, and crept off in the woods to die. An hour spent in butchering barnyard fowl would have been quite as enlivening and manly sport, but, such as this was, it furnished endless delight to the Spanish king.  Philip’s religious nature was as narrow and superstitious as we might expect. His confessor was his constant confidant: to him he disclosed the petty doubts and fears which disturbed him; how should he say his prayers on St. Elizabeth’s Day; what ceremonial must he follow on the octave of the dedication of the Holy Trinity; at what moment should he begin fasting; at what moment should he cease praying? Such questions, solemnly reduced to writing, were daily presented to his confessor, and have been preserved for posterity. The confessor, who was a sensible man, told him that it was not alone prayers and penitence which made a saintly king; that, if he would occupy himself with the duties of royalty, he could accomplish more for God’s glory than did many preachers and missionaries. Such advice was unheeded. Philip was in constant fear of dying, and often he insisted on keeping his confessor by him all the night. Frequently he awoke, and at once demanded ghostly counsel on some doubt that had traversed his feeble brain. At one time he was so apprehensive of the administration of a secret charm or poison, that his attendants had endless trouble to induce him to change his clothes or his linen. The description which St. Simon gives of Philip in 1721 does not seem strange, when we consider the life which he had led for twenty years. He was bent and shrunken; his chin projected, his gait was a shuffle, his speech was a drawl, and his appearance imbecile.  Such was the prince to place whom on the throne of Spain half a million Frenchmen perished. The treasury was bankrupt, the fields lay untilled, trade was stagnant, misery was widespread; and all this that a grandson of Louis XIV. might reign at Madrid with as little profit to Spain as to France. What an enormous price to pay, and what a beggarly reward to receive!

Philip’s second wife possessed a character as vigorous as his was weak. She was a woman without experience in affairs of state, her mind was narrow and suspicious; but she had an active intelligence, untiring energy, and unusual power of will. Two sons by Philip’s first wife were living. The second wife also had children. There seemed slight probability that they would inherit the Spanish crown, and her energies were occupied in finding thrones and principalities for them elsewhere. For that end she had no more hesitation in involving Spain and all Europe in war than has a tigress in killing a fawn for her cubs. The establishment of the sons of Elizabeth of Parma controlled the politics of Spain for quarter of a century; it wasted many lives, and produced endless disturbance in Europe.

Elizabeth may have been entitled to demand advantages for her offspring as compensation for the existence which she was forced to lead. A lifelong tête-à- tête with such a man as Philip must have been misery equal to that caused by the most refined and ingenious tortures of the Inquisition. In company Philip rarely opened his mouth, and with his wife he would sit for hours in silence. When he did talk, it was of the chase, of his clothes and those of his children. And yet, in order to hold her ascendency, the queen was obliged to keep him always in her view. Sometimes she would not even let him confess in secret. He loved flattery, and she praised him constantly. She lauded his skill at the mall, his presence, his dress; she even told him how intelligent he was, and how great a king. A resolute woman hesitates at nothing. Though Philip’s character was feeble, it was not difficult to induce him to plunge his country into war. He had a certain vague ambition, a desire to be regarded as a powerful king, and he was as unscrupulous as monarchs who possessed greater ability. While he waked his confessor at night to get instructions as to the order of his devotions, he had no regard for the treaties he signed, or the oaths he swore; and he pursued with a stubborn pertinacity his plans for obtaining anything which he desired. His readiness to plunge Spain and France in war to accomplish his purposes, if he had been an able man, would have made him a dangerous man.

In order to conclude the peace of Utrecht, Louis had compelled his grandson to execute a renunciation of his rights as a possible heir to the French throne. It was asserted by those who opposed the treaty then, and by those who have condemned it since, that this renunciation was invalid. When the English ministers demanded it as a condition of peace, Torcy had replied that in France it was a fundamental law that the nearest heir received the throne, not from the preceding king, but directly from God, and that this divine ordi vance no renunciation could affect, and only God could alter. This position was nonsensical, and Torcy knew it quite as well as Bolingbroke. The argument was advanced to make the English desist from a demand to which Louis was reluctant to accede. There was no such law in France. Even if there had been, Bolingbroke’s answer was complete, that, though God gave a prince the right to inherit, there was no law that prevented his surrender of the right; even the most strenuous advocates did not claim that the law of God forbade a king to abdicate. But in France there had never been any positive enactment such as Torcy claimed, nor had there been an immemorial usage which should take the place of written law. If the throne of France by God’s decree must always descend in a direct line, Louis XIV. was an usurper. Carlovingian and Merovingian sovereigns had been dethroned; they had partitioned the territory of France among themselves to suit their own tastes; the Bourbons were not the lawful heirs of those who had once ruled in that land. Even if Louis XIV. was a lawful sovereign, it was certain that Philip V. was not. He was king of Spain by virtue of the renunciation of his father and his older brother. If Torcy was correct, that a prince could not deprive his offspring of their rights by birth, then the infant Louis XV. was manifestly entitled to the throne of Spain as well as of France, and the renunciations by which Philip had been placed on it were contrary to the law of God, and void. Philip had secured his rights in Spain as a compensation for yielding his possible rights in France.

Though the renunciation of the Duke of Anjou was valid by the laws of France, as well as by the laws of common sense and common honesty, yet it was very doubtful whether it would be observed. A similar doubt enveloped every treaty that was made. The fact that sovereigns violated their agreements with facility could be obviated by no skill in the framers of treaties. A humorous diplomat had suggested that to each of the elaborate phrases, in which the renunciation of Philip was couched, should be added the words, “In the same manner as was expressed in the renunciation of Maria Theresa,” in violation of which Philip was now on the Spanish throne.

Louis XIV. regarded the instrument executed by the king of Spain as in all respects valid, and he was distressed when Philip, notwithstanding his scruples of conscience as to fasts and formulas, declared that he would not respect his oaths or his agreements. “I am sure that you regret giving occasion to the charges that you are seeking pretexts to avoid the renunciation to which you have solemnly sworn,” he wrote his grandson.

The only check upon Philip was removed when his grandfather died. He had long regarded the Duke of Orleans with animosity. During the war of the Succession, Orleans for some years commanded the armies in Spain. When Louis XIV. believed that it was impossible that Philip could retain the Spanish throne, Orleans became involved in some indiscreet intrigues, founded on his own contingent rights if Philip were compelled to abdicate. There was nothing in what he did contrary to his obligations to that sovereign, but his conduct was injudicious. Mme. des Ursins conceived a strong dislike for Orleans, and Philip disliked what she disliked. Subsequent events had only strengthened his aversion. At last Orleans obtained the regency, which Philip wanted for himself. He entertained for the regent both hatred and fear. His terrors were increased by the reports of Orleans’s crimes which were sent from Paris. Philip was easily led to believe that the wicked cousin, who had already poisoned his brother, was now seeking an opportunity to poison him.

A new favorite had attained to power in Spain, and for four years controlled the destinies of that country. Giulio Alberoni, like so many of those who have reached the highest dignities of the church, was of very humble extraction. He was an Italian, born near Piacenza, and was the son of a gardener. He took orders, obtained the good-will of the Duke of Vendôme, and in 1711, as his secretary, first visited Spain. Two years later he was appointed consular agent for the Duke of Parma, whose subject he was. He used his influence to induce Mme. des Ursins to choose the niece of that duke as Philip’s second wife; and when Elizabeth Farnese had arrived in Spain, and established her wifely authority over her husband, the road lay clear for Alberoni’s advancement. He was of the same nationality as the queen; he had helped her to the position which she held; he enjoyed her entire confidence. He soon became the prime minister of Spain, and exercised in that country a despotic authority. To the rule of a French princess succeeded the rule of an Italian priest. Spain seemed to be unable to supply men from her own soil who could play any part in the state. Alberoni desired to be made a cardinal, and the influence of Spain was exercised to procure him this honor. Clement XI. hesitated. So unfit did he regard Alberoni for the purple, that he said he should undoubtedly burn in hell if he made him a cardinal. Even if the Pope entertained such gloomy apprehensions, he decided to run the risk. In July, 1717, Alberoni was declared a cardinal, and this dignity increased the influence which he already possessed.

Alberoni has often been likened to Dubois. Both had risen from a very humble social position, both were violent and vulgar in their speech and manner, both were eager and unscrupulous in pursuing their own advancement, and both attained the highest dignities of the church and state. The analogy cannot be carried further. Dubois was a man of sagacity; no one considered more carefully than he the condition of the states and the character of the men with whom he had to deal; no one was more adroit in persuading others to adopt his own conclusions. Alberoni possessed the reverse of these qualities.

He has been compared with statesmen like Richelieu and Mazarin; it has been said that under favorable circumstances he might have rebuilt the power of Spain, and accomplished results as brilliant as those effected by the great French cardinals. No comparison could be more inaccurate. The essential quality of a statesman is to recognize what is possible, to abide the fitting hour, to seize the opportunity of to-day and watch for the opportunity of the morrow. But Alberoni was a dreamer. His political schemes were as impracticable as those of his royal master. Like a petulant child, he refused the advantages which he could obtain, because they were not all that he desired. He was always hoping for some mysterious turn of affairs. He devised vast political combinations, which came to naught; he hoped to conquer England with a few thousand ill-equipped troops, to overthrow the authority of the regent by means of a handful of discontented intriguers. He failed in everything that he undertook, becaase he would never recognize that the world was what it was, and not what he wished it to be. Alberoni claimed great credit for himself because he organized in Spain a considerable navy and army, because he did something to rouse that country from its lethargy. But all that he accomplished by his energy he destroyed by his folly.

The cardinal stimulated all the vague, ambitious hopes which agitated Philip’s brain. The plans of the feeble king and his chimerical minister would have required the power of Louis XIV. in his palmiest days to have any chance of accomplishment. All the provisions of the treaty of Utrecht were odious to them, and they were eager to overthrow the arrangement by which, only three years before, the peace of Europe had been made and the crown of Philip assured. Spain must recover her lost possessions in Italy; Gibraltar must be restored; Parma and Tus cany must be secured for the son of Elizabeth Farnese. It would have been impossible for the most powerful state in Europe to obtain such advantages, and they were not likely to be accorded to one of the weakest.

An unfriendly policy towards the regent accorded with the prejudices of Philip and the plans of Alberoni. A new treaty was made with England, by which she secured great commercial advantages. On the other hand, French trade and French merchants were harassed. They were subjected to heavier impositions than when Spain was governed by kings of the house of Austria. The French ambassador remonstrated, but without success. At the same time, engineers were employed to repair the fortifications on the line of the Pyrenees towards France, which had been suffered to fall into decay. Such was the spectacle presented within three months of the death of Louis XIV. to those who believed that ties of blood governed the policy of princes, and that the Pyrenees no longer existed. Orleans sent to Madrid the Marquis of Louville, who had formerly been an intimate associate of the Duke of Anjou, but Alberoni was too wary to allow the king to be exposed to the blandishments of a friend of his youth. Louville was met with letters, purporting to be by Philip’s order, but of the existence of which the sovereign was perhaps unaware, which directed him to return forthwith to France. It was with difficulty that he found a physician to attend him in an illness, such was the apprehension of any relations with a man who was distasteful to the queen and her minister.  Baffled in his attempts to remain on good terms with Philip, the regent joined the Triple Alliance. The assertion in the treaty that this alliance was made to secure the tranquillity of Europe was no idle boast. “Your voyage to the Hague, Monsieur l’Abbé,” said Stanhope to Dubois, when the instrument was signed, “has saved the waste of human life. There are nations who will be indebted to you for their tranquillity, though they do not know it.” In pursuance of a policy that was alike judicious and humane, tho endeavor was now made to adjust the points of contention between Austria and Spain, and to prevent the recklessness of Philip and Alberoni from kindling a European war.

Spain had already taken the first step towards an appeal to the sword. Alberoni constantly declared that the Austrians must be driven from Italy. Such a purpose would have been deserving of sympathy, if the object of freeing Italy from the burden of Austrian occupation had not been to subject her to the incubus of Spanish occupation. Any consideration for national interests, or affinities, or sympathies was unknown to the politics of this period. Such ideas were so foreign to political conceptions that they were not even advanced as pretexts. “They cut and pare states and kingdoms as if they were Dutch cheeses,” wrote Alberoni of the statesmen of the day. “After all,” said the regent to Stair, “what does the nation amount to?” “Very little,” replied the ambassador, “until a standard is raised.” The standard was not raised until late in the century. The Spanish had long been preparing a naval force of considerable strength. It was certain that an expedition was contemplated in some direction, but the real object was concealed, for Alberoni had the faculty of keeping his own counsel. To the Pope he intimated that the fleet would sail against the Turks, so soon as a cardinal’s hat was bestowed on a minister who had it in his power to do good work for the cause of Christ. In August, 1717, the fleet set sail. It did not proceed against the infidels, but nine thousand men landed on the island of Sardinia, which had been ceded to Austria by the treaty of Utrecht. The Emperor was engaged in a war with the Turks, his Italian possessions were scantily garrisoned, and the Spanish captured the island without difficulty.

Thus the war between Spain and the empire was again kindled, and it seemed probable that all the parties to the contest of the Spanish Succession would soon find themselves in arms. The admirers of Alberoni have claimed that he was opposed to commencing hostilities, but was forced to begin war at the express command of the Spanish king. The cardinal’s letters and conversations support this claim. But those who suppose that Philip V. was capable of insisting upon so important a measure, contrary to the wishes of his minister, are ignorant of his physical and mental condition. His health at this period was more infirm than usual, and during the autumn his life was in danger. Alberoni had long been strengthening the Spanish army and preparing a fleet; he was not a man who, like the father of Frederick II., equipped soldiers for the pleasure of looking at them. In June, Alberoni wrote a strong letter declaring that Spain was not ready for war. In this he was sincere. He had not yet been elevated to the cardinalate, and he knew that the Pope would be mortally offended when he discovered that the Spanish expedition was intended for Italian invasion. On July 12, Alberoni was made a cardinal, and early in August the fleet sailed for Sardinia.

The hostile measures taken by Spain increased the desire of England and France to secure the continuance of peace. In September, 1717, Dubois was sent as ambassador to London. His mission was accompanied with important political results; his letters illustrate, also, many of his own peculiarities. He was charmed with England. “There is no other country in the world,” he writes, “where one can see so many pretty women.” He was equally impressed by the populousness of London. The Pont-Neuf, he said, seemed like a solitude in comparison. The abbé was always eager to make friends, and he scorned no means of obtaining their favor. He ordered dresses for many of the ladies of the court. He describes the complexion, the height, the figure, even the color of the hair, of those for whom they were intended; he directs, with anxious attention, the manner in which the trains should be finished. Nor did he give less attention to his larder, that he might furnish pleasure to the husbands as well as to the wives. Perigord truffles were ordered, cheeses from Brie, and marmalades of extraordinary delicacy. His cook fell sick, and he was in despair. The names were sent of candidates for the office, and he criticises them with a severity befitting the gravity of the situation. “You speak of the cook of M. d’Armenonville, but M. d’Armenonville did not understand good living. His brother, the Bishop of Orleans, lived on salsify. It is impossible that a good officer should be turned out from that school.”

A minister who was diligent in small matters did not neglect those of more importance. The regent was earnest in demanding for Spain the advantages which might reasonably content its sovereign. The English sought to reconcile the Emperor to the treaty of Utrecht, against which he had so bitterly protested. The negotiation was long protracted, but at last it was agreed between France and England that the Emperor must acknowledge Philip as king of Spain, and Philip must surrender any claim upon the possessions ceded to Austria; in consideration for this, Don Carlos, Philip’s son by Elizabeth Farnese, should be recognized as heir to the duchies of Tuscany and Parma, and Sicily should be ceded to Austria by the Duke of Savoy, who was to receive Sardinia in exchange. The Spanish must, of course, withdraw their troops from Sardinia and agree to keep the peace.

These terms were reasonable. England and France asked no advantages for themselves; they sought only to preserve the tranquillity of Europe. But an arrangement that was fair to each party was distaste ful to Spain and to Austria. The Emperor proposed an alliance with France, to be purchased by the surrender of Alsace to Germany; he was willing to treat with England, if Majorca and Sicily could be secured for him, without allowing Tuscany to fall to the lot of a Bourbon prince. It was with reluctance that he would agree to renounce the title of king of Spain, though it was as visionary as if he had called himself the king of Jerusalem. Dealing with these unreasonable demands was not an easy task, but it was successfully accomplished.

The secret council at Vienna displayed an unusual amount of sagacity. The minutes of its proceedings recite that, in the hope of getting more by waiting longer, Austria had suffered serious disadvantages at the successive treaties of Nimeguen, Ryswick, and Utrecht. It was thought wise, therefore, not to delay in entering an alliance which secured the fertile island of Sicily in exchange for the barren island of Sardinia. In July, 1718, an agreement was signed between France and England. Austria became a party to it in August, Holland subsequently joined; and it thus became the Quadruple Alliance.

Spain was asked to accede to the terms agreed upon by the four great powers. Even if they had been less favorable, it was useless for her to oppose them. Spain could not have resisted such a combination in the days of Philip II., and it was folly to suppose that she could do so in the condition to which she had fallen under Philip V. But the terms of the treaty were such as could properly have been accepted. The inheritance of the duchies of Tuscany and Parma was secured to a Bourbon prince, the son of the Spanish queen. In their eagerness to avoid war, George I. and his ministers were willing to surrender Gibraltar, which had been captured fourteen years before. Spain could have escaped the humiliation of seeing the English flag over the stronghold where it still floats, almost two centuries later. That country could have pursued her course of material improvement, could have continued to strengthen her army and her navy, until she might have assumed a position in Europe not in all respects inferior to that which she formerly occupied. It was necessary to abandon the dream of reconquering the possessions surrendered by the treaty of Utrecht. But that was only a dream. The increased prosperity of Spain was largely due to the fact that she was relieved from the care of distant provinces which had cost her much and yielded little. It is the conclusive proof of Alberoni’s incompetency that he let this opportunity go by, and wasted the resources which the country had acquired in a hopeless struggle after impossible chimeras.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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