18th Century Overview: Politics (1): The Early Years.
Spain’s political fortunes during the 18th century were played out against a background of events in the rest of Europe. Nothing new about that; it had been so during the 16th and 17th centuries. But there was a big difference in the 18th century: Spain no longer called the shots. Spain’s political fate depended to a large degree on the struggle for power between Britain and France, its traditional rivals, and Austria, the home of the Hapsburg dynasty. At the same time, lesser powers such as Holland and Portugal were ready to pounce on any Spanish weakness. Both had historical grievances against Spain, having once formed part of the Spanish empire.
A map of Europe in the 18th century shows that Spain’s territory had shrunk substantially from what it had been in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The disintegration began when Holland and Portugal seceded in the 17th century. Within a few years into the 18th century, Spain lost all its remaining European territories, a significant indicator of its fading political clout. An equally significant sign of the country’s political impotence was the presence, at both ends of the century, of foreign troops on its soil, an enormous reverse of the ubiquitous Spanish presence in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Three developments early in the 18th century define Spain’s political history during the rest of the period: a new royal dynasty, centralisation of power, and a humiliating loss of territory.
The Early Years: A New Dynasty.
In 1700, the death of the impotent Charles II –the last Hapsburg monarch on the Spanish throne—brought to a head a feverish struggle for control of the Spanish throne. Charles was persuaded on his deathbed to declare as his successor the 16-year old Bourbon prince, Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France. This set off alarm bells in Britain, Austria and Holland, which feared France’s expansionist ambitions. To counter France’s aspirations, they formed a Grand Alliance (joined later by Portugal in 1703) and supported the claim of the Austrian pretender to the Spanish throne, the Hapsburg Archduke Charles. The result was a long war –the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-13– in which Spain’s interests were largely subordinated to the dynastic and political intrigues of these other nations.
The War of the Spanish Succession might have been avoided if the Archduke Charles had not received support within Spain. Castilians generally supported Philip because the new royal house promised continuation of an imperial Spain ruled from Madrid. However, Catalonia, Aragon, and Valencia, i.e. the Mediterranean flank, and traditionally the most stubbornly opposed to Castilian domination, supported the Austrian pretender. Why? There was the long-standing rivalry between Castile and the other three regions, each of which enjoyed traditional rights (fueros), which the Castilians had already tried to override in the 17th century. Although Philip swore to recognise these rights shortly after assuming power, the Catalans, Aragonese and Valencians still feared that he would follow the absolutism or centralist policies of his grandfather, Louis XIV (famous for the saying L’etat, c’est moi: “The state, that’s me”). The enterprising Catalans also had another motive: they saw in the sea power of the British and the Dutch a way to break the Castilian-French monopoly over trade with the Americas, carried out exclusively through the port of Cádiz. The three regions were to pay dearly for opposing Philip.
Centralisation of Power.
The defeat of the three rebellious regions gave Philip the perfect excuse to abolish those fueros that he had sworn to recognise shortly after arriving in Spain. The enforced centralisation that the Hapsburg monarchs of the 17th century had failed to impose was now seen as a justified response to acts of betrayal. The fueros of Aragón and Valencia were abolished in 1707, those of Catalonia in 1716. Henceforth Aragón, Valencia and Catalonia were subject to the laws of Castile, under a plan known as the Nueva Planta (New Foundation). The Cortes (Parliaments) of these regions were abolished and only those individuals loyal to Madrid were appointed to local offices. In addition, the Catalans had to accept the suppression of their language, although some small concessions were made to allow it in legal and commercial fields.
“It is necessary to abolish, efface and suspend in
their entirety the privileges, usages and customs
of the principality … to employ the Castilian
language … so that books in Catalan must be
forbidden, nor must it be spoken or written in
schools, and instruction in Christian doctrine
must be in Castilian…” Insight Guide: Catalonia, 44
As ruler of a centralised Spain, Philip V became the first Spanish monarch to rule over a single or unitary state, governed by the rules and laws of Castile. True, the Basque Provinces and the Navarra still retained their fueros more or less intact –a reward for having supported Philip– but even here royal power made considerable inroads. Not since the Romans had the peninsula (excluding Portugal) been so united: one law, one language and one religion.
Loss of Territory.
The confirmation of Madrid’s power nationally contrasted with its political impotence internationally. This was reflected in the carving up of its European territories at the Treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714). Although Spain was left with its American and Pacific territories intact, it was forced to cede Flanders, Milan, Naples (i.e. all of southern Italy) and Sardinia to the Austrians, Sicily to Savoy, and the island of Menorca to England. All this was humiliating enough, but even more so was the loss of a part of its national territory, Gibraltar, taken by force by the British in 1704. Gibraltar is still a British possession, and has been referred to periodically in Spain as “the national shame” (la vergüenza nacional), often to divert internal unrest. General Franco, for example, found it useful whenever he wanted to stir up national sentiment during his dictatorship (1939-75).
For the rest of the 18th century, click here
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