A brief history of Spain – Part 16, Ferdinand VII (1808, 1814 – 1843)

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Ferdinand VII

Ferdinand VII had spent his years in exile in idleness on a beautiful estate in France. The only feat of arms reported is Fernando’s fruitless attempts to make Napoleon’s niece his wife. She didn’t want to hear anything about him, though. Perhaps understandable given Napoleon’s opinion of him and the fact that even his own mother labelled him an ugly one. 

“A foolish, lazy, lying, humiliated, conniving husband and not even physically a man,” wrote his first wife María Antonia of Naples to her mother. Nevertheless, the Spanish people hailed him as a hero. They saw in him the man who had resisted Napoleon in France and who had exerted a great influence behind the scenes in the liberation of Spain.

Start of the era of ‘two Spains’

Back in Spain, Ferdinand VII refused to take the oath to the new liberal constitution. With the help of the military, he issued a decree declaring the Cortes in Cadiz illegal and annulling the 1812 constitution. Now Spain had its desired monarch and lost its liberal constitution. The old institutions, the power of the nobility and the Ayuntamientos were restored. Press freedom was again curbed and the Inquisition once again reinstated. The Jesuits came back and regained their dominant position in education. Incited by king and church, an angry mob looted the Cortes building in Cádiz. With Fernando’s return, the era of the “two Spains”, that of liberal and conservative, left and right, was finally started. Many believe it lasted until Franco’s death, but many others say it celebrated its biennial in the year 2014.

Click here for the previous parts of a Brief history of Spain

Wars of Independence

wars of independence

José Casado del Alisal: Spanish victory at Bailén (painted in 1864)

During the chaos of the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), Spain had slowly but surely lost control of its overseas territories. During the Spanish-American Wars of Independence (1808-1829), the Spanish colonies in South and Central America gained independence one by one. The loss of the colonies and the high costs of warfare had led to a further increase in public debt and poverty among the population. After 1810 famine and yellow fever epidemics resurfaced, resulting in many casualties.

Resistance to the central government

In several regions, Cataluña, the Basque Country and Andalucia, resistance to the central government increased, manifesting itself in large-scale tax evasion and smuggling. Spain was a nation on the decline, and at the European summit of 1815 in Vienna, where the great European powers discussed the future of Europe, Spain was not at the table.

Cogesa Expats

Military coups

In 1820, a military coup led by General Riego took place and Ferdinand was forced to restore the 1812 constitution. The Liberals gained a majority in the Cortes. So… the Inquisition was again abolished and the Jesuits expelled again. It was decided to sell ecclesiastical land in order to reduce the enormous national debt. There was an impetus for a fairer division of land and free education. The radical changes by Spanish standards led to mutual division among the liberals themselves, discontent among the powerful Catholic Church and the nobility and unrest abroad.

The military coup of 1820 was the first in a series as the various political factions maintained close ties with senior officers. After the coup of Riego, more than a hundred military coups were to take place in Spain until General Franco took power in 1936. 

In 1823 France invaded Spain (Holy Alliance) again to restore the power of the Catholic Ferdinand. The Spanish army was unable to offer any significant resistance. The Cortes fled again, first to Seville, later to Cádiz. Cádiz did not last long this time and the Cortes surrendered. Despite the promise of amnesty, Ferdinand VII arrested and murdered, exiled or sentenced to a life as galley slaves. Some lives were only spared through the intervention of the French occupier. AutCoup leader Riego was imprisoned in Madrid and later, after a humiliating journey in a basket behind a donkey and being booed by the people of Madrid, he was executed. Those who had bought church possessions saw them confiscated without any compensation. The Jesuits came back but… under French pressure, the Inquisition was not reinstated.

Chaotic 19th century

The bureaucratic, corrupt governments under the tyrannical Fernando VII contributed to a chaotic 19th century. This time was marked by political polarization, revolts, coups, civil wars and a heavily contested monarchy. Fernando showed little interest in the interests of his impoverished people. Left and right governments (the right was most often the parent party) and dictatorships would alternate. Polarization, division, corruption, administrative amateurism, and the powerful opposition of the nobility and the Catholic Church were the reasons why the liberals never succeeded in forming a stable government.

Right-wing governments met their end again. Contrary to the European ‘zeitgeist’ of the 19th century, by the excessive predominance of the interests of the nobility and the Catholic Church at the expense of the common people. This would repeatedly result in revolt, revolution or military intervention.

The most conservative Catholics were displeased with Ferdinand’s failure to restore the Inquisition. Therefore, they pinned their hopes on Carlos, Ferdinand’s brother and legal successor, as Ferdinand remained childless. However, in 1830, Ferdinand had a daughter with his fourth wife, his cousin Maria Christina. A change in the law ensured that she would succeed him as Isabella II. That way, his younger brother Carlos saw the pretensions to the throne evaporate.

Consequently, Carlos fought the change and saw himself as the first man in the line of succession as the rightful heir. Ferdinand made concessions to the Liberals to gain their support, many Liberals came back from exile and political captivity. After Ferdinand died in 1833, Carlos proclaimed himself King of Spain as Carlos V, and in that year the first civil war in 300 years, the Carlist War, broke out.

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