Spanish Empire—Bourbon Spain

1700 to 1900
War of Spanish Succession to Spanish American War

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Bourbon Spain

Spanish Crown descends to the Bourbons—On the death of Charles II there widespread concern that the Spanish crown would fall to the descendants of Louis XIV, the powerful monarch of France, upsetting the balance of power in Europe. As a result, most of western Europe was drawn into the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1714), between France and an Austrian-British alliance. The war failed to prevent a Bourbon monarchy in Spain, but did limit the expansion French influence. The Bourbon Kings were granted rule of much of the Iberian Peninsula, and maintained the Spanish Empire overseas, but they lost control of formerly Hapsburg territories in Italy and Northern Europe. It was finally agreed that the Spanish crown would descend to Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV, but that the two thrones of France and Spain should never be united.

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Spain had lost a great deal of territory in Italy during the war and the first order of business of the Bourbon monarch was to attempt to regain these dominions. After this proved futile, Philip V's son Ferdinand IV, attempted to implement a series of reforms aimed at "modernizing" the government. There was, however, much opposition to liberal ideas among the peasants and nobility alike. The modernist faction in Spain tended to be concentrated in the cities and among the upper-middle classes and especially among those who opposed the influence of the church. But a large majority of the Spanish people distrusted change and a strong traditionalist faction survived until the 20th century, making the implementation of progressive reforms very difficult.

The Catholic Church held great tracts of land in Spain and was a prime target for modernist reformers. Confiscation of church property, so that it could be put to "better use" was a primary objective for progressive administrators and Charles III was an "enlightened despot" whose administration was full of such schemers. As a result of much intrigue, both within the state houses of Europe and the church itself, the Spanish government under Charles III broke faith with the Jesuits, who had done so much to Christianize Spain's American colonies, and helped suppress the order (1773). All Jesuits were forced out of the dominions of Spain and their properties were split between local governments and religious orders in better favor with the Spanish court.

The Peninsular War in Spain— At about the same time the rumblings of the French Revolution were felt in France, the Spanish government fell into the hands of Maria Louisa and her deplorable minister Emanuel Godoy, who cravenly submitted to the demands of Napoleon. The Spanish people, however, objected with great vigor to the tyrant and rose against him when he invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. At the Battle of Bailen an inexperienced and ill-equipped Spanish force surrounded and defeated a French army, to the surprise of all of Europe. Napoleon responded by attempting to crush the insolent Spaniards, but the whole country rose against him.

In the Peninsular War which followed, Britain joined forces with Spain to oppose Napoleon. Unfortunately, the British supported the liberal rather than the traditional faction in Spain, so many Spaniards fought as guerillas rather than serve under British command. For four years Spain was ravaged by war and during this time the Spanish colonies of Latin America, goaded on by Freemasons, took the opportunity to declare their independence.

As Napoleon's empire began to collapse, the Peninsular war was brought to a close and Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne. Unfortunately this brought little peace. Spain was still so divided between traditionalists and modernists that it was nearly ungovernable. While traditionalists had most of the population on their side, money and foreign influence was on the side of the modernists, so the liberals gradually gained strength. In 1820 there was a liberal coup d'etat in Spain, and shortly afterward conservative and modernist factions in Mexico united to declare independence. The alliance broke down quickly, however, and Mexico suffered a century of civil war. The liberal reign in Spain was short lived and in 1823 Ferdinand was restored to the throne. He remained in power until his death in 1833, hated by liberals, but popular with the common people.

The Carlist Wars—A Divided Country—Before 1830, Ferdinand VII had no heir so the throne was set to pass to his brother, Don Carlo, a traditionalist. In order to prevent this, the liberals passed a law allowing the crown to pass to Ferdinand's infant daughter, Isabella II. This led to a long-running conflict which came to be known as the Carlist Wars. The First Carlist War lasted from Ferdinand's death in 1833 until Don Carlos went into exile in 1843, and it was during this period that the regents for Isabel's government allowed the confiscations of a great deal of Church property. This was a strike against the Church, which supported the Carlists in the dispute, but it also served to enrich and empower a new generation of landowners and administrators who benefited from the confiscations.

About the time the first Carlist War ended Isabella was declared sovereign, but for most of her reign the government remained in the hands of ministers who attempted to maintain order by appeasing both conservatives and progressives. Isabella governed poorly, sometimes favoring traditionalist causes, but tending toward decadence in her personal life. Her court was filled with intrigue and corruption, and she was deposed by another liberal coup in 1868.

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The conspirators who overthrew Isabella, however, had no clear plan of government, and could not agree on the terms of either a republican government or a constitutional monarchy. One European royal by the name of Amedeus of Savoy was offered the Spanish crown, but abdicated after three years, declaring the country of Spain ungovernable. During his reign, a third Carlist uprising broke out, resulting in four more years of civil war and anarchy. By 1876 however, the revolution was spent and its leader, Don Carlos (son of the Don Carlos who led the first Carlist uprising), went into exile. At this point Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II, was restored to the throne.

Constitutional Monarchy——For the following fourty-five years, Spain was ruled as a constitutional monarchy under Alfonso XII, and later under his son Alfonso XIII. The strife between modernists and conservatives continued unabated, but the popularity of both Alfonsos helped to unify the country somewhat. For most of this period the government was run by ministers who systematically rigged elections and alternated power between two political parties. This helped suppress the creation of a genuinely populist political movement, and also avoided accountability for unpopular measures.

Weakened by nearly a century of civil wars, a corrupt government, and widespread resistance to modernization, the country was in no condition to defend itself when the United States declared war on Spain in 1898. The justification for the Spanish American War was that Spain had cruelly repressed peasant rebellions in Cuba and the Philippines. Both rebellions, however, were orchestrated by American-backed secret societies with the express purpose of overthrowing Spanish rule, and making her colonies protectorates of the United States. Predictably, Spain suffered a humiliating defeat, but the disaster had a silver lining. The fact that Spain had a weak navy, was financially exhausted, and was no longer an imperial power helped her remain neutral during World War I. This improved her condition somewhat, especially relative to those portions of Europe devastated by the Great War.

The Spanish Civil War—The conflict between traditionalists and liberals continued for the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1921 a coup broke out and a military dictatorship ruled until 1930. Soon after, Alfonso XIII went into exile and a Second Republic was attempted, but this only worsened the long-running dispute. When liberals were in power they confiscated Church property and attempted to secularize the country, and when conservatives were elected to undo the "reforms" the left responded with strikes and uprisings. Both left and right were composed of various factions with irreconcilable goals so there was little hope of peace or unity no matter who was in power. Eventually, however, a coalition of left and center managed to wrestle power from the conservatives, and shortly afterward a military coup led by Francisco Franco ushered in a bitter civil war.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was fought between the conservative Nationalist Party and left-wing Republicans, but various international political movements that were active throughout Europe at the time (Communists, fascists, socialists, anarchists, etc.) became involved in the struggle, particularly on the side of the left. The struggle for power among Republicans ended up helping the Nationalists and the conservative party prevailed after years of brutal conflict. The Spanish Civil war ended just as the second world war began and once again Spain benefitted by its neutrality during a conflict that engulfed almost all the rest of Europe.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for nearly four decades, but his rule was relatively mild, and Spain transitioned peacefully to a constitutional monarchy in 1974.

Characters—Bourbon Spain

Character/Date Short Biography

18th Century

Philip V
Grandson of Louis XIV who was recognized as the first Bourbon King of Spain after the War of the Spanish Succession.
Giulio Alberoni
Spanish statesman active during the late reign of Louis XIV and the War of the Spanish Succession.
Elizabeth Farnese
Queen of Philip V who, with Cardinal Alberoni, ruled the Spanish court in the early 18th century.
Charles III
d. 1789
Enlightened' King of Spain who tried to modernize Spain. Attempted financial reforms and suppressed the Jesuit order.
Ferdinand VI
Bourbon king of Spain who supported the reforms of his chief minister Ensenada.
Marquis of Ensenada
Spanish secretary of State under Ferdinand VI. Promoted peace, internal reform, and public works.

Napoleonic Era

Maria Louisa
Notorious bourbon Queen of Charles IV, who promoted her incompetent favorite Godoy to prime minister.
Ferdinand VII
Bourbon king, restored to the throne of France after the Napoleonic Wars, refused to work with liberal constitution.
Emanuel Godoy
Decadent minister, favorite of Spanish queen. Blamed for fall of the Bourbon monarchy by acquiescing to Napoleon.
Jose de Palafox
Spanish noble from Aragon who courageously defended Saragossa from a French siege during Napoleonic Wars.
Agustina de Aragon
Heroine of the siege of Saragossa. Behaved heroically under fire. Later joined Wellington's troops as an officer.

19th century

Tomas Zumalacarregui
Courageous and loyal Basque general who commanded the traditionalist troops during the First Carlist War.
Don Carlos
Brother of Ferdinand VII and rival claimant to the Spanish throne who initiated the Carlist Wars.
Maria Christina
Queen regent of Spain who championed the cause of her daughter Isabella II against the Carlists.
Isabella II
19th century queen of Spain who lived a life of scandal and dissipation and was eventually deposed.
Liberal, anti-clerical General who opposed the Carlists, and briefly ruled as regent of Spain before being exiled.
Alfonso XII
Son of Isabell II to took the throne after a coup d'etat overthrew the First Republic. Died suddenly shortly thereafter.

Timeline—Bourbon Spain

AD YearEvent
1704 Loss of Gibralter to the British
1714 War of the Spanish Succession brought to a close, Philip V retains the throne
1718 Spain loses War of Quadruple alliance, surrenders Italian territories
1727 Spain fails to retake Gibralter during War with England
1740-48 Beginning War of the Austrian Succession
1754-63 Seven Year's War, Florida lost to Spain.
1759 Charles III ascends throne and attempts "modern" reforms.
1773 Suppression of the Jesuits
1778 Spain joins American Revolutionary War in order to fight against Britain.
1788 Spain falls under control of queen Maria Louisa and Emanuel Godoy.
1808 Napoleon over-runs Spain, initiates Peninsular War
1810 South American governments declare independence from Spain.
1814 Ferdinand VII is restored to the throne. Refuses liberal constitution.
1817 Much of South America lost to Spain after the Battle of Chacabuco
1820-23 Liberal coup d'etat briefly establishes a republican government
1821 Mexico declares independence from Spain.
1823 Peru and Ecuador win independence from Spain
1823 Ferdinand VII, supported by France, is restored to the throne.
1833-43 Carlist Wars, Traditionalists seeks to place Don Carlos on the throne
1835 Ecclesiastical confiscations—Monastic orders dissovled, property confiscated.
1843 Isabella II ascends to throne of Spain at age 13.
1846 Second Carlist War
1868 Isabella II deposed, exiled to France
1869 Liberal constituional monarchy attempted under Amedeus of Savoy
1873 First Spanish Republic attempted, collapsed almost immediately.
1874 Alfonso XII raised to the throne of Spain
1898 Spanish American War, Cuba and Philippines lost to Spain.
1931 Second Spanish Republic quickly descends into anarchy.
1936-39 Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War

Recommended Reading—Bourbon Spain

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   The House of Bourbon to Isabella II to Alfonso XIII (5)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   Spain Under the Bourbons to Spain as a Republic (3)

Supplemental Recommendations

Bonner - A Child's History of Spain   Philip the Fifth to Spain in Our Day (12)
Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   The Spanish Bourbons to The Revolution (4)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   Elizabeth Farnese to Manila and Santiago (6)
Abbott - Joseph Bonaparte    entire book