Fernando VI (1746–59), King of Spain

Portrait by Louis Michel Van Loo

The Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Don Juan José Navarro drove off the British fleet under Thomas Mathews near Toulon in 1744.

Fernando VI (1746–59) ascended to the throne at the age of thirty-three, mature and well trained in the business of government. As the second son of Felipe V and his first wife María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy, Fernando was not first in line for the throne, but upon the premature death of his older brother Luis I in 1724, he became the heir, ahead of his half-brothers Carlos and Felipe. Historians often consider Fernando VI as the first “Spanish Bourbon,” not only because he was born in Madrid, but also because his government chose not to continue the reliance on France that had characterized the long reign of his father. Open to question is whether that was a useful strategy for Spain at the time.

In contrast with the active and warlike stance of Spain under his father and stepmother, Isabel Farnese, Fernando consciously chose the pursuit of peace as the best way to serve his people. He shared his father’s ability to recognize talent among the pool of potential advisers at court; he appointed a series of competent men to the highest posts in his government and let them do their jobs without royal meddling. The king set the tone and direction of his administration, but he felt no need to try to control every aspect of government.

Fernando’s wife Barbara of Braganza, the Portuguese ruling dynasty, set the tone for the cultured court life in Madrid and in the other palaces of the realm. Because both the king and queen had a passion for music, orchestral and vocal performances and multimedia spectacles occupied an important place in court entertainments. Domenico Scarlatti, the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, had served as the queen’s music tutor in Portugal and came to the Spanish court with his royal patroness. He spent the rest of his life serving the royal couple and writing hundreds of compositions for them. The queen also patronized Father Antonio Soler, a notable Spanish composer who studied with Scarlatti. To organize the elaborate spectacles and outings that defined the life at court, the royal couple hired Carlo Broschi, the famous castrato singer better known as Farinelli. As the court traveled from palace to palace on a regular annual round, taking advantage of the seasonal attractions in each venue, Farinelli made sure that they had sufficient amusements to distract them from the tedium of daily life and political responsibilities.

These distractions were of particular importance for the king, who lived under the same cloud of depression that had haunted his father. Also like his father, Fernando depended heavily on the loving support of his wife. In the arcane language that historians use to describe that dependence, he was uxorious, a characteristic often attributed to the Spanish Bourbon kings as a whole. When it became clear, after years of devoted marriage, that the royal couple would have no heir, both the king and queen felt the lack of children keenly. The lavish entertainments that they sponsored at court can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt to fill the emptiness in their lives.

Court culture included an affinity for the mathematical and scientific interests of the Jesuits as well as the early stirrings of the Spanish Enlightenment, most notably in the writings of the Benedictine monk Benito Feyjóo. Lamenting that Spain had fallen behind its European neighbors in intellectual pursuits, Feyjóo argued tirelessly for a new spirit of inquiry, particularly in the sciences. Although his writings met with strong criticism from traditionalists, Feyjóo enjoyed the steadfast support of the king.

Although Fernando sent his stepmother Isabel Farnese into retirement at the palace of La Granja, he did not entirely abandon her quest to recover territories in Italy lost in 1714. His half-brother Carlos had inherited the duchies of Parma and Piacenza in 1731, when the Farnese line died out. Carlos conquered Naples in 1735. That same year, the Habsburg emperor ceded the kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) to Spain, in exchange for Parma and Piacenza. Carlos reigned as king of the Two Sicilies from 1735 to 1759, and Fernando regained the duchies of Parma and Piacenza for his half-brother Felipe by allying with France in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8).

Thereafter, Italy ceased to be the major focus of Spanish foreign policy, and the Bourbon “Family pact” with France no longer defined Spain’s relations with its European neighbors. The main proponent for this new posture was José de Carvajal y Lancaster, a Spaniard of Anglo-Portuguese origins on his mother’s side and one of the king’s foremost advisers on foreign affairs from 1746 to 1754. He held the posts of Secretary of State and president of the Junta de Comercio (Trade Committee), as well as serving as the head of the Council of the Indies. After the War of the Austrian Succession ended, Carvajal moved away from the pro-French policy of his precursors. Although England continued to pose the most serious threat to the Spanish Empire, Carvajal followed the Portuguese example by choosing cordiality rather than confrontation with England as the best way to protect Spain’s interests abroad.

The king and Carvajal also worked to end friction with Portugal regarding the borders between Spanish territories in South America and Portuguese Brazil. By the Treaty of Limits in 1750, Spain and Portugal agreed to a frontier that many Spaniards branded as too favorable to the Portuguese. In effect, the treaty abandoned considerable territory in Uruguay to Portugal, bordering on the missions that the Society of Jesus had established in Paraguay among the Guaraní people. Despite the crown’s support for missionary activities in the American empire, officials in Madrid faulted the Jesuits for managing their missions largely without regard to the crown’s interests and supervision. The dramatic story of Portuguese harassment of the Jesuit missions and their eventual dismantling serves as the basis for the 1986 film The Mission.

Predictably, the Jesuits were angry about the terms of the treaty, and many members of the Spanish elite agreed with them. Among their supporters, the Jesuits could count the marquis of La Ensenada, who had continued as a key adviser to the crown during the reign of Fernando VI. Like José Patiño before him, Ensenada held responsibility for numerous government ministries, dealing with finance above all, as well as war, the navy, and the Indies. The responsibilities of Ensenada and Carvajal overlapped at several points, and they disagreed about many aspects of Spanish policy, both in Europe and abroad. For example, Ensenada was pro-French, as well as pro-Jesuit, whereas Carvajal remained wary of both of those positions.

Conspiracies at court swirled around Ensenada in the aftermath of the Treaty of Limits, and he encountered royal displeasure for corresponding about its terms with King Carlos of Naples, Fernando VI’s half-brother. In 1754, Ensenada’s enemies brought about his fall from favor, an outcome that the English ambassador Benjamin Keene claimed as his doing. Even though Ensenada’s career ended in disgrace, he accomplished a great deal during his decade in power, including the negotiation of a new agreement with the Vatican: the Concordat of 1753. Settling a series of jurisdictional disputes between the papacy and the Spanish crown, the Concordat clarified and arguably increased the role of the crown in the religious life of Spain.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Ensenada’s tenure in office was his focus on the need to strengthen the Spanish economy and rebuild Spanish shipping capacity for both military and mercantile needs. Like his rival Carvajal, he thought the crown should play a major role in building up all the resources of the state, both human and material. With a growing population and a strong economy, Spain could defend its interests in Europe and abroad. The government inquiry called the “Catastro de la Ensenada” set out to survey the landed wealth of the kingdom, preparatory to instituting a single tax (“Única Contribución”) based on wealth. That inquiry, carried out by the system of intendants reinstalled in 1749, remains the most important source of information on the Spanish economy in the mid eighteenth century. Much as Ensenada had hoped, the Catastro suggested that both the population and the economy were indeed experiencing impressive growth. Tapping into that growth in the guise of tax reform met resistance, however, from the large landowners who would have paid most of the new tax. Faced with their resistance, the “Única Contribución” never came into effect.

Instead of general tax reform, Ensenada had to settle for piecemeal revisions of existing taxes. He also instituted other reforms that contributed to the goals of a stronger Spanish economy with an enhanced military capability. For example, he set up seed banks (pósitos) that helped poor farming families survive through lean times without depleting their seed for the next planting. As for the military, after years of preparatory work, in 1748 his office published a thoroughgoing new set of naval regulations for ship construction, manning, and general administration.

Key to Ensenada’s naval reform was the creation of three large naval districts, with headquarters at Ferrol on the north coast, Cartagena on the Mediterranean, and Cádiz on the southern coast west of Gibraltar on the Atlantic. Moreover, Ensenada was able to install a marine registry (matrícula), based on economic incentives, which his precursors had planned but had not implemented. With the registry in place, the government could ensure a steady supply of crewmen for the navy, based on a strengthened merchant marine, and without relying on coercion or violence to enlist them. With the support of the king, Ensenada had been able to secure huge resources for the navy, even with the country at peace, and new ship construction up to the early 1750s aimed to make Spain into a formidable naval power once again. Jorge Juan y Santacilia pioneered the new science of hydrography to study how ships moved through water, and Spain’s new warships took advantage of the best in modern design and the best materials available.

With both Carvajal and Ensenada out of power after 1754, government reforms lost their momentum in all spheres. Ricardo Wall, a mediocre bureaucrat of Irish ancestry, became the dominant adviser to the king. Although some historians consider him pro-English, he seems to have lacked any clear vision for the direction of Spanish foreign policy. Some of Ensenada’s appointees stayed on in the government, presumably with their pro-French and anti-English sentiments intact. In the growing rivalry between France and England, the neutrality that Wall and the king seemed to favor was not necessarily a bad choice. Even though England still posed the greatest threat to the empire, France had been an unsteady ally. Only through avoiding a renewal of warfare could Spain hope to concentrate on continued economic growth.

When warfare broke out in 1756, Fernando VI refused to participate, even though the stakes clearly included control of overseas territories. Most of Europe would know the conflict as the “Seven Years War,” whereas North American historiography would call it the “French and Indian War.” Spain would call it the “First Anglo-French Maritime War,” denoting both its major antagonists and its global character. In the fluid diplomatic climate of the times, the war featured a “diplomatic revolution,” in which France allied with Austria rather than Prussia, and England allied with Prussia rather than Austria. Although England wanted a Spanish alliance as well, Spain probably benefited from her neutrality in the short term, not least because the Spanish monarchy was in serious disarray in the late 1750s.

Queen Barbara of Braganza died in 1758, and her death afflicted the king beyond all reason. He soon sank into the same black depression that had claimed his father at the end of his life. By the time Fernando died in 1759, madness reigned. Both King Fernando and Queen Barbara are buried in the Convent of the Royal Salesians in Madrid, on the street that bears the queen’s name near the National Library.

Although his reign lasted only fourteen years, Fernando VI continued the Bourbon reform program, as well as the royal building program begun in his father’s reign. That was possible because the king appointed capable men loyal to the interests of the crown and of the Spanish state. Like other European monarchies at the time, Spain had developed an identity apart from that of its monarch, so that government business and the loyalty of the citizenry did not depend as heavily as they had in the past on the person of the king. That was fortunate, given the king’s battles against mental illness. Despite those battles, however, Fernando worked hard to be an enlightened king to his people and to keep Spain out of the wars that dominated the mid eighteenth century and drained his neighbors’ treasuries. That was a difficult posture to maintain, however, because Spain was a second-rank European power with a first-rank global empire, viewed by its rivals and allies alike as an attractive prize.