After the period of prosperity under Charles III, Spain went further and further downhill in the 19th century. This provoked the growing following of his younger brother Carlos and the conflict Bourbons versus Carlists.
Most western countries already had a constitutional monarchy with (a form of) parliamentary democracy. However, in Spain the innovators never managed to push through definitively. This was partly caused by the innovators themselves. They were typified by division, lack of organization and power base, partly due to the social structures and forces of the still largely feudal Spain.
The monarchs who succeeded Charles III played a weak role in this. Opinions are still divided about Charles IV, but Ferdinand VII’s anachronistic policy initiated a century of stagnation in a force field. Herein, the innovators (liberals) achieved short-lived successes. However, the reactionary forces (nobility, Catholic Church and other large landowners) continued to the parent party remained.
The Catholic Church
Spanish Catholicism encountered widespread political resistance for the first time in its history. Not only did the liberals want to reduce the power of the monarchy, they also targeted the Catholic Church. The progressive liberals in particular wanted to rid the church of its vast landholdings. The church had also lost much of its influence spiritually. From 1860, however, a kind of spiritual revival takes place among the elite. The influence of the church in education also increases afterwards. This results in a new dichotomy in Spain, a pro-Catholic elite and rural population versus an anti-Catholic urban intelligentsia and working class.
Fernando VII‘s reign provoked much resistance in progressive circles in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. However, in Spain he also faced protests from the ultra-conservative side. These ultra-conservatives demanded the reinstatement of the Inquisition and formed the following of Fernando’s younger brother and pretender to the throne Carlos (Carlos V).
Fernando VII had no male descendants and in Spain women were excluded from succession to the throne at the time. Therefore, he restored a once abolished law that stipulated that in the absence of a male descendant, women could also be heirs to the throne. This meant that Fernando would be succeeded by his daughter Isabella and not by his younger ultra-conservative brother Carlos.
Carlos later refused to take the oath on Isabella’s appointment as Princess of Asturias, the official title for an heir apparent. This refusal led to Carlos having to flee to Portugal. The supporters of Carlos, the Carlists, had a large following mainly in the northern rural areas of Catalonia, Navarre, Aragon and the Basque Country, as well as in Andalusia.
Between 1833 and 1876, three Carlist Wars took place. Herein, the Carlists were mainly supported by conservative Catholics, peasants and Basque nationalists. Ultimately, these (civil) wars led to little success. A military coup d’état in 1874 brought Isabella II’s son, Alfons XII, to the throne.
After the Carlists had been defeated and lost their military power, they continued to exert their political influence on the conservative side for quite some time. This influence, however, appeared to wane in the course of time. Consequently, today the Carlist movement leads a marginal existence.
In the civil war of 1933 – 1939, the Carlists fought alongside Franco. When King Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe prince Carlos Javier de Borbón-Parma, descendant of Carlos V, made it clear that he could legitimately claim the throne.