Spain: History for Young Readers - Frederick Ober

Isabella II and the Carlists

The greatest, most illustrious reigns in Spain have been those inaugurated by the placing on the throne of princes already of age, trained in kingly affairs and able to rule without assistance. The weakest, most deplorable reigns have been those where princes or princesses nominally occupied the throne, and regencies or successions of favourites actually held the power. A king or queen should be one pre-eminent for strength and virtues, a leader, a ruler, capable of guiding and fostering the best interests of the subject people. But the Spaniards, through their false notions of chivalry, their romantic ideas of majesty; have lost sight of the primal principles of kingship. Provided that a fantastic figure be elevated to the august position—whether a weak and juvenile scion of royalty, or a gilded and bedizened puppet of rags and putty—it may for a time command their worship and blind adoration! This national trait is admirable, were nothing expected of a king or queen but to act as an ornamental figure-head. Unfortunately, in a nation composed of such diverse and irreconcilable elements as exist in Spain, much more is expected—is demanded.

When, in 1833, at the death of the king, the infanta, Maria Isabella II, was held up for the adoration of the people, most of them fell down and blindly worshipped. The Cortes assembled at Madrid and swore loyalty to the three-year-old queen and her mother, the regent, while the unthinking people went wild in their fervent declarations of devotedness to the heiress of the most corrupt, most intolerant sovereign that had disgraced the throne in many years.

But there was an instant protest from a minor portion of the people, led by the late king's brother, Don Maria Isidor Carlos de Bourbon; not because of the silly spectacle afforded by placing the reins of power in the hands of a puling infant, but because Don Maria Isidor Carlos de Bourbon wanted the throne for himself! In truth, but for King Ferdinand's "pragmatic sanction," abrogating the existing "Salic law" (excluding females from the succession), Don Carlos had every reason to believe he would himself be king. He was born in 1788, or a year before the "pragmatic sanction" was put forth, he was next in line of the male successors, and he meant to "succeed." So he started a revolution, and thus began, in 1833, the first of that long series of battles, massacres, outrages, known collectively as the "Carlist Wars."

Don Carlos had been banished by Ferdinand to Portugal for venturing to protest against the very thing that happened later, and after the king's death he came over the frontier between France and Spain with a small army. His chief adherents were found in the country of the Basques, those brave, peculiar, liberty-loving but bigoted people; in the north of Spain, who have dwelt from time immemorial in their beautiful mountain valleys, and whom we have noted at the very beginnings of Spanish history as strenuous opponents of oppression and defenders of their rights, real or imaginary.

Among other rights which they claimed were the ancient fueros—charters or privileges—by which, in consideration of valiant the services in the past, they were exempt from most taxes, from enforced military service,, etc., and they recognised the ruler of the country not as king or queen, but merely as lord. It was given out by the Carlists that these fueros  were to be taken from them by the "liberals," or adherents to the queen regent, and that only by assisting the really legitimate sovereign (Don Carlos, of course) could they still continue to enjoy their ancient immunities. So they flocked to the Carlist standard, and opposed to them and their associates were the Christinos, or supporters of the queen regent Christina. For seven years they fought, victory first with one side, then with the other. At one time the queen regent and her court were on the point of fleeing the country; the Carlist guerrillas were at the gates of Madrid; but by the persistence of General Espartero, commander of the Christinos, in May, 1840, the last of the pretender's forces were driven over the frontier. Terrible excesses were committed on both sides; the Carlists, particularly, under the savage Cabrera and Zumalacarregui, showed what the Spaniard is capable of when his evil passions are aroused. "Those days that I do not shed blood," said the cruel Cabrera, "I do not have a good digestion!" He punished with death the giving of a drink of water to a wounded enemy, and he butchered in cold blood numerous innocent women, children, and aged men. A Christino garrison once surrendered to him on the stipulation that their lives and their clothes should be spared to them. He performed his part by stripping them of their clothing and setting his men to chasing and shooting them until the last one fell! And these conflicts were between men of the same nationality, sometimes of the same township and canton; thus showing to what a state of moral degradation these people had arrived.

A short period of peace ensued, but the Carlist conflict has been continued intermittently until the present day. The first Don Carlos died in 1855, and his eldest son, the Count of Montemolin, fell heir to the feud, making an unsuccessful attempt at revolution in Valencia in 1860; but died in 1861. A brother succeeded to the claims as Juan III, and he, in 1863, renounced them in favour of his son, grandson of the first Don Carlos, or Charles V. He is the present Don Carlos, or Charles VII, known as the Duke of Madrid, and was born in 1848. He was implicated in Carlist uprisings in 1869, 1870, and 1872, and personally instituted his greatest campaign in 1873, which was suppressed, while the Basques, his devoted adherents, were deprived of many privileges. As a French "legitimist," he has also a claim to the throne of France, and was at one time expelled from that country; but has since been permitted to return, whence he has conducted clandestine operations against the Spanish crown. And now, with a child sovereign and a queen regent again in Spain, the conditions are similar to what they were in 1833. There is still, after more than sixty years, a Don Carlos as claimant to the throne; but to-day, even more than then, the moral influence of Europe is against the "pretender," and in favour of the "legitimate" sovereign.

The present queen regent, Christina of Austria, mother of the boy king Alfonso XIII, possesses—what Queen-Regent Christina of Naples did not have—the respect and confidence of her people. Christina of Naples, the mother of Isabella, forfeited the good opinion of all her subjects by her gross immorality, and in 1840 she was compelled to renounce her regency in favour of the prime minister, Espartero, who as general of her armies had won the victories over the Carlists, and leave the country. Her daughter, as Isabella II, was early declared to have reached her majority, and in 1846 was married to her cousin, Don Francisco de Bourbon, while her sister, the infanta, was married to the Duke of Montpensier, son of Louis Philippe of France. These were the infamous "Spanish marriages" arranged by Louis Philippe in the hope of securing the succession to his house.

The story of her reign is not an inviting one, revealing as it does the instability of the Spanish character and the corruption of the court and queen. Spain's foreign relations had been strengthened by the "Quadruple Alliance "between England, France, Portugal, and Spain, and liberal statesmen were numerous who would have served her faithfully. Under Burgos, in Christina's time, wise plans were made for the development of commerce, internal improvements, and the regulation of church and state. Blindly cognizant that the church had in some way possessed itself of a vast portion of the nation's wealth, many advocated confiscation of church properties. In 1835 the cry was, "Down with the monks!" and hundreds of these helpless though useless persons were massacred. The country's resources seemed at the last ebb, when the able banker Mendizabel came to the rescue; but he accomplished no more than the several "Constitutions" (of which at least three were put forth in twenty-five years) to remedy the existing troubles. The reason was that the real secret of their troubles lay in the people themselves: the masses, complacent in self-sufficient ignorance; the intelligent portion without patriotism, self-seeking politicians.

Espartero was overthrown and went into exile in 1843. In 1844 arose a strong military government under the veteran Narvaez, who kept order and sustained the throne until 1851. Meanwhile the French Revolution of 1848, though it unsettled Spain not a little, was safely tided over. In 1854 insurrections broke out in various parts of the country, and to appease the people a national "Junta" was formed, with the recalled Espartero and O'Donnell at its head. The latter continued to direct affairs more or less until 1858; in 1859 he created a diversion of public sentiment by a short war in Morocco, and in 1861 the island of Santo Domingo was annexed.

Between this time and 1866 the changes in the ministry were numerous, from O'Donnell to Miraflores, and back again to Narvaez and O'Donnell; but in 1866 a serious insurrection under General Prim broke out, which was suppressed and the leaders exiled. A more successful rebellion was inaugurated in 1868 by the naval fleet under Admiral Topete, at Cadiz. Prim and Serrano, the exiles, returned; the rebels and royal troops fraternized, and Queen Isabella, then at the baths of San Sebastian, was sent over the frontier, never to return.

Without being specific in charges against her, it may be mentioned that her subjects, debased as many of them were, yet demanded a queen with higher moral purpose—more like the Isabella of old, less like the disreputable queen-mother Christina. She had reigned, in a fashion, for thirty-five years, including the regency. She was banished in 1868, since which time she has lived in Paris, where she made her home after her exile, ever true to the traditions of Ferdinand VII and his times.