The Change of Dynasty – Bourbon Spain

Louis XIV presents his grandson, the King of Spain to the Court and to the Spanish Ambassador.

The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.

The fall of Oropesa in 1691 left Spain without an effective Government. Indeed, it was followed soon after by the curious administrative experiment of dividing the peninsula into three large governmental regions, one under the Duke of Montalto, the second under the Constable, and the third under the Admiral, of Castile. This was little more than a medieval-style partition of the country among rival lords; and since it was imposed on a State which already possessed the most rigid and elaborate bureaucratic superstructure, it merely led to a further round of clashes of jurisdiction between Spain’s perennially competing Councils and tribunals. But by this stage domestic changes in the peninsula had virtually ceased to be of any importance. Spain was no longer even remotely the master of its own fate. Overshadowed by the terrible problem of the royal succession, its future now largely depended on decisions taken in Paris, London, Vienna, and the Hague.

By the 1690s, the problem of the Spanish succession had become acute. Charles II had remained childless by his first marriage, to María Luisa of Orleans, who died in 1689. It soon became apparent that his second marriage – an ‘Austrian’ marriage, to Mariana de Neuburg, daughter of the Elector Palatine and sister of the Empress was also likely to be childless. As the hopes of an heir faded the great powers began their complicated manoeuvres for the acquisition of the King of Spain’s inheritance. The new marriage had provoked Louis XIV into a fresh declaration of war, which involved yet another invasion of Catalonia, and the capture of Barcelona by the French in 1697. But in the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the war in September 1697, Louis could afford to be generous. His aim was to secure for the Bourbons an undivided Spanish succession, and there was more hope of attaining this by diplomacy than by war.

The last years of the dying King presented a pathetic spectacle of degradation at Madrid. Afflicted with convulsive fits, the wretched monarch was believed to have been bewitched, and the Court pullulated with confessors and exorcists and visionary nuns employing every artifice known to the Church to free him from the devil. Their rivalries and intrigues mingled with those of Spanish courtiers and of foreign diplomats, who were collecting like vultures to prey on the corpse of the Monarchy. While France and Austria hoped to secure the entire prize for themselves, England and the United Provinces were determined to prevent either of them from obtaining an inheritance which would bring the hegemony of Europe in its train. But the task would not be easy, and time was running out.

At the time of the peace of Ryswick there were three leading candidates for the Spanish throne, each of whom had a strong body of supporters at the Court. The candidate with the best claims was the young Prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria, the grandson of Philip IV’s daughter, Margarita Teresa. His claims were supported by the Count of Oropesa, and had been pressed by the Queen Mother Mariana, who died in 1696. They were also acceptable to the English and the Dutch, who had less to fear from a Bavarian than from a French or Austrian succession. The Austrian candidate was the Archduke Charles, the second son of the Emperor, who was supported by Charles’s Queen, Mariana de Neuburg, and by the Admiral of Castile. Finally, there was the French claimant, Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou, who claims were clouded by the Infanta María Teresa’s renunciation of her rights to the Spanish throne at the time of her marriage to Louis XIV.

In 1696 Charles, who was thought to be dying, was induced by the majority of his councillors, headed by Cardinal Portocarrero, to declare himself in favour of the Bavarian Prince. Louis’ skilful ambassador, the Marquis of Harcourt, set himself to undo this as soon as he reached Madrid on the conclusion of the Treaty of Ryswick. Still manoeuvring among themselves without regard for the King’s wishes, the great powers agreed secretly in October 1698 on the partition of the Spanish inheritance between the three candidates. Naturally enough the secret was badly kept. Charles, imbued with a deep sense of majesty which his person consistently belied, was deeply affronted by the attempt to dismember his domains, and signed a will in November 1698 naming the Bavarian as his universal heir. This arrangement, however, was thwarted by the sudden death of the young Prince in February 1699 – an event which brought the rival Austrian and French candidates face to face for the throne. While frantic diplomatic efforts were made to avert another European conflagration, Charles fought with a desperate resolution to keep his domains intact. The news that reached him at the end of May 1700 of another partition treaty seems finally to have persuaded him where his duty lay. Alienated by dislike of his Queen from all things German, and deeply solicitous for the future well-being of his subjects, he was now ready to accept the almost unanimous recommendation of his Council of State in favour of the Duke of Anjou. On 2 October 1700 he signed the anxiously awaited will, naming Anjou as the successor to all his dominions. The Queen, who had always terrified her husband, did everything in her power to induce him to revoke his decision, but this time the dying King held firm. With a dignity on his death-bed that had constantly eluded the poor misshapen creature in his lifetime, the last King of the House of Austria insisted that his will should prevail. He died on 1 November 1700, amidst the deep disquietude of a nation which found it almost impossible to realize that the dynasty which had led it to such triumphs and such disasters had suddenly ceased to exist.

The Duke of Anjou was duly proclaimed King of Spain as Philip V, and made his entry into Madrid in April 1701. A general European conflict might still have been avoided if Louis XIV had shown himself less high-handed at the moment of triumph. But his actions alienated the maritime powers, and in May 1702 England, the Emperor, and the United Provinces simultaneously declared war on France. For a time the war of the Spanish Succession, which was to last from 1702 to 1713, seemed to threaten the Bourbons with utter disaster. But in 1711 the Emperor Joseph died, to be succeeded on the Imperial throne by his brother, the Archduke Charles, who had been the allies’ candidate for the throne of Spain. The union of Austria and Spain beneath a single ruler – so uncomfortably reminiscent of the days of Charles V – was something that appealed to the maritime powers even less than the prospect of a Bourbon in Madrid. Accordingly, the English and the Dutch now declared themselves ready to accept a Bourbon succession in Spain, so long as Philip V abandoned any pretensions to the French throne. Agreement was formalized in the Treaties of Utrecht of 1713, which also gave Great Britain Gibraltar and Minorca. A further peace settlement in the following year between France and the Empire gave the Spanish Netherlands and Spain’s Italian possessions to the Austrians. With the treaties of 1713–14, therefore, the great Burgundian-Habsburg empire which Castile had borne on its shoulders for so long was dissolved, and two centuries of Habsburg imperialism were formally liquidated. The Spanish Empire had shrunk at last to a truly Spanish empire, consisting of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and of Castile’s American colonies.

The extinction of the Habsburg dynasty and the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire were followed by the gradual dismantling of the Habsburg system of government. Philip V was accompanied to Madrid by a number of French advisers, of whom the most notable was Jean Orry. Orry remodelled the royal household along French lines, and settled down to the gargantuan task of financial reform. The process of reform continued throughout the war, and culminated in a general governmental reorganization, in the course of which the Councils began to assume the shape of ministries on the French model. At last, after decades of administrative stagnation, Spain was experiencing that revolution in government which had already changed the face of western Europe during the preceding fifty years.

The most important of all the changes introduced by the Bourbons, however, was to occur in the relationship between the Monarchy and the Crown of Aragon. In the modern-style centralized state which the Bourbons were attempting to establish, the continuation of provincial autonomies appeared increasingly anomalous. Yet it did seem for one moment as if the Crown of Aragon might survive the change of régime with its privileges intact. Obedient to the dictates of Louis XIV, Philip V went to Barcelona in 1701 to hold a session of the Catalan Cortes – the first to be summoned since Philip IV’s abortive Cortes of 1632. From the Catalan standpoint, these were among the most successful Cortes ever held. The Principality’s laws and privileges were duly confirmed, and Philip conceded important new privileges, including the right of limited trade with the New World. But the Catalans themselves were the first to appreciate that there was something incongruous about so generous a handling of provincial liberties by a dynasty notorious for its authoritarian traits. Nor could they forget the treatment they had received at the hands of France during their revolution of 1640–52, and the terrible damage inflicted on the Principality by French invasions during the later seventeenth century. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that as Philip V’s popularity increased in Castile, it declined in Catalonia. Finally, in 1705, the Catalans sought and received military aid from England, and proclaimed the Austrian claimant, the Archduke Charles, as Charles III of Spain. Allied troops were also enthusiastically welcomed in Aragon and Valencia, and the War of the Spanish Succession was converted into a Spanish civil war, fought between the two parts of the peninsula nominally united by Ferdinand and Isabella. The allegiances, however, were at first sight paradoxical, for Castile, which had always hated the foreigner, was supporting the claims of a Frenchman, while the Crown of Aragon, which had always been so suspicious of Habsburg intentions, was championing the claims of a prince of the House of Austria.

On this occasion, Catalonia, although a far more mature and responsible nation than it had been in 1640, proved to have made a disastrous mistake. The Government of the Archduke Charles in Barcelona was sadly ineffective, and would probably have collapsed within a few months if it had not been shored up by Catalonia’s allies. Aragon and Valencia fell to Philip V in 1707, and were summarily deprived of their laws and liberties as a punishment for supporting the losing side. It was hard to see how the Principality could escape a similar fate unless its allies held firm, and firmness was the last thing to be expected of an increasingly war-weary England. When the Tory Government signed the peace with France in 1713 it left the Catalans in the lurch, as the French had left them in the lurch during their revolution against Philip IV. Faced with the equally grim alternatives of hopeless resistance and surrender, the Catalans chose to resist, and for months the city of Barcelona held out with extraordinary heroism against the besieging army. But on 11 September 1714 the Bourbon forces mounted their final assault, and the city’s resistance reached its inevitable end. From 12 September 1714 Philip V, unlike Philip IV, was not merely King of Castile and Count of Barcelona; he was also King of Spain.

The fall of Barcelona was followed by the wholesale destruction of Catalonia’s traditional institutions, including the Diputació and the Barcelona city council. The Government’s plans for reform were codified in the so-called Nueva Planta, published on 16 January 1716. This document in effect marks the transformation of Spain from a collection of semi-autonomous provinces into a centralized State. The viceroys of Catalonia were replaced by Captain-Generals, who would govern in conjunction with a royal Audiencia conducting its business in Castilian. The Principality was divided into a new series of administrative divisions similar to those of Castile, and run by corregidores on the Castilian model. Even the universities were abolished, to be replaced by a new, royalist, university established at Cervera. The intention of the Bourbons was to put an end to the Catalan nation, and to obliterate the traditional political divisions of Spain. Nothing expressed this intention better than the abolition of the Council of Aragon, already accomplished in 1707. In future, the affairs of the Crown of Aragon were to be administered by the Council of Castile, which became the principal administrative organ of the new Bourbon state.

Although the new administrative organization went a good deal less far in practice than it went on paper, the passing of Catalan autonomy in 1716 marks the real break between Habsburg and Bourbon Spain. If Olivares had been successful in his foreign wars, the change would no doubt have come seventy years earlier, and the history of Spain might have taken a very different course. As it was, the change came too late, and it came in the wrong way. Spain, under the Government of the Bourbons, was about to be centralized and Castilianized; but the transformation occurred at a time when Castile’s economic hegemony was a thing of the past. Instead, a centralized Government was arbitrarily imposed on the wealthier peripheral regions, to be held there by force – the force of an economically retarded Castile. The result was a tragically artificial structure which constantly hampered Spain’s political development, for during the next two centuries economic and political power were perpetually divorced. Centre and circumference thus remained mutually antagonistic, and the old regional conflicts stubbornly refused to die away. The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.