Spain. Restoration 1902-1931. Alfonso XIII. The Monarchy.

Spain. Restoration: Alfonso XIII. The Monarchy.
Alfonso XIII (1886-1941; ruled 1902-23; remained king until 1931, during the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera).

As one of the three traditional powers of Spanish politics (along with the church and the nobility), the monarchy saw its reach severely curbed during the politically volatile 19th century. 

The 1812 Constitution stripped the throne of absolute power, and granted legal power exclusively to the Nation through the Cortes (Parliament). All subsequent 19th-century constitutions retained that basic division of powers with those of the monarch undergoing some variations**.

** The Republican constitution of 1873
abolished both monarchy and nobility,
but it was never passed into law.

The last constitution of the 19th century (1876) reaffirmed the Cortes’s power to enact laws, with the monarch as head of state.

Alfonso XIII was 16 when he came to the throne in 1902, taking over from his doting mother who had been regent since her husband’s death in 1885.

Although vain and autocratic, Alfonso was a pleasant individual with a love of sports, shooting, and fast cars. He was also a very eligible bachelor in the courts of Europe. While in London on a state visit in 1905, he fell in love with Victoria Eugenia, the haemophiliac daughter of Edward VII and granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Scene following attempted assassination of Alfonso XIII after his wedding to Victoria Eugenia

After a “postcard” romance (Alfonso regularly sent Eugenia postcards declaring undying love), they were married a year later in Madrid. However, the occasion was marred when a Catalan anarchist tried to assassinate the king. The royal couple escaped, but 24 others were killed by the bomb blast.

The royal couple had six children, two of whom
–both sons—were haemophiliacs. In 1914, Alfonso
and Eugenia were estranged, with Alfonso holding
Eugenia responsible for tainting the Spanish royal
line.  Alfonso subsequently took several mistresses
and fathered five illegitimate children. He and Eugenia
separated officially in 1931, after Alfonso went into
exile in Rome.  He died in Rome in 1941.

Not only was the incident a violent reminder of the uncertainties of Spanish political life at this period, it also underlined the vulnerability of the monarchy. The 19th century had already seen the institution traumatised first by the end of royal absolutism in 1812 and then by rejection in 1873 when Spain became a republic (for a year).

Now, at the beginning of the 20th century, its position was precarious, viewed by many as a corrupt symbol of the country’s decadence. To the Republicans, the king was an anachronism; for the socialists he represented outdated traditionalism and conservatism; the regionalists saw in him the hated reminder of centralism and suppression while for the anarchists he was the leading functionary of state apparatus.

On the other hand, the army, the church (hostile to republican sentiments) and nobility looked favourably on the institution.

Despite opposition, Alfonso survived for twenty one years as king. It was hoped, when he came to the throne, that he would be a symbol of a New Spain in a new century, a revitalised country with a promising future. Regeneration was the buzz word.

And had Alfonso followed his father and refrained from political involvement, he might have survived the political crises, and the monarchy would have been saved the ignominy of a second rejection by the electorate in 1931. But in a way Alfonso’s involvement was thrust upon him.

Like so many fellow Spaniards, he was shocked by his country’s humiliating defeat by the United States in 1898 (aka the Spanish American War) and took El Desastre (The Disaster, as the defeat was commonly called) very much to heart.

Unfortunately, however, Alfonso XIII inherited a corrupt political arrangement known as the gobierno de turno, i.e. a system of conservative and liberal governments alternating by mutual agreement.  Installed in the last quarter of the 19th century, it had provided a veneer of stability thanks to an understanding between its conservative founder, Antonio del Cánovas, and his liberal rival and collaborator, Práxedes Sagasta.

 **A corrupt system whereby local political bosses
caciques—were charged with ensuring the desired
electoral results during the period of gobierno de
turno pacifico

But it was a system underpinned by the corrupt practices of rural caciquismo ** and was unprepared for the social changes of the urban centres.  It was, quite simply, not representative, and was subordinated in particular to the interests of the agrarian landowners or oligarchies.

In addition, there were several new competing political voices –e.g. the army, workers’ movements, Republicanism, anarchism, regionalism– whose divergent interests put increasing stress on an arrangement that depended so much on the “agreement between gentlemen” politics of the gobierno de turno. Therefore, it was inevitable that in time the turno’s shortcomings would strain political credibility, especially after the assassination of Cánovas in 1897 and Sagasta’s death in 1903.

The ineptitude of civilian politicians and subsequent political instability of the early years of the 20th century only helped to confirm Alfonso’s understanding of his constitutional role as final arbiter in Spanish politics. It also played into his autocratic personality.

In one of his first public speeches, he declared: “whether Spain is to remain a Bourbon monarchy or whether it becomes Republic depends on me … I can cover myself with glory regenerating my country … or I can be a king who does not rule and, being ruled by my ministers, will end up out of my country” (Carr 475). Prophetic words in retrospect, for he did, indeed, end up an exile.

As a result of Alfonso’s scorn for politicians and his personal interpretation of his constitutional role as power broker, he intervened frequently in the political process. Eight prime ministers came and went during the first four years alone of Alfonso’s reign and in the space of twenty-one years (1902-23), there were thirty three different governments.

Alfonso XIII.

Nevertheless, the one body that Alfonso respected and could depend upon to support the monarchy was the Army, which saw the royal institution as guarantor of national unity.

From his early days Alfonso had been surrounded by military groups and, as chief of staff, rarely ever appeared in public without his army uniform. It was a symbiotic relationship that saw Alfonso support the demoralised Army following its defeat in Cuba in 1898 and back its military presence in Morocco, the last remnant of the once great empire. But such an intimate relationship came with a price, and eventually cost Alfonso his crown.

In September 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera –believing himself to be the “iron surgeon” some Spanish critics had called for to regenerate their country– staged a coup. Alfonso had been secretly briefed of the impending coup and effectively legitimised it by accepting it and proclaiming a military dictatorship under Primo. By doing so, Alfonso abdicated his constitutional responsibilities and unwittingly condemned the monarchy by association.

Alfonso XIII with General Miguel Primo de Rivera.

Although he remained king under Primo, Alfonso was largely irrelevant in the power structure and he became increasingly known for his playboy lifestyle, flitting to social gatherings at the “in” cities of Europe (Biarritz, San Sebastian etc.).

In April, 1931, just fifteen months after Primo was forced into exile, Alfonso followed suit, unable to survive the military shadow that haunted him.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond  Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Esdaile, Charles J Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Herr, Richard “Flow and Ebb 1700-1833” in Spain: A History ed. Raymond Carr  Oxford  pp. 173-204.
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