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context and origins
the carlist wars, 1833–1836
toward the spanish civil war

Carlism is the name generally given to an ultratraditionalist movement in Spanish politics that emerged in the 1820s and remained in existence until the Spanish civil war of 1936–1939.

context and origins

Between 1814 and 1876, at least, the defining feature of Spanish politics may be said to have been the clash between liberalism and conservatism. Resulting in no fewer than five civil wars, this was eventually settled in favor of the former: under King Alfonso XII (r. 1874–1885) Spain settled down as a parliamentary monarchy and enjoyed a period of relative stability that lasted until the over-throw of the constitution by a military coup in September 1923. However, the ideology of nineteenth-century conservatism survived intact and in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939—a conflict in which it secured a terrible revenge—it re-emerged as the chief basis of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975).

Conventionally, this great ideological divide is dated to the Peninsular War of 1808–1814 and, in particular, the Constitution of 1812. Based on the sovereignty of the people, the latter was accompanied by a series of reforms that undermined the position of the church and the nobility alike, and the liberales who had forced it through in the famous cortes of Cádiz (and from whom the term liberal originates) were therefore confronted by an opposition group who were given the scornful nickname of the serviles (literally, "the servile ones"). In reality, however, the feelings that motivated this latter group went back well before the Peninsular War. Thus, the enlightened absolutism of Charles III (r. 1759–1788) and Charles IV (r. 1788–1808) had seen the Spanish state make considerable advances at the expense of the church and the nobility, and the dissatisfaction of these two privileged corporations had been one of the chief factors underpinning the political turmoil that had produced the intervention of Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) in Spain in 1808. It would, then, be a great mistake to think that the serviles simply wanted the restoration of absolute monarchy.

When the constitutional system was overthrown by a military coup in 1814—a coup, incidentally, that was led by servil generals, but based on widespread anger in the officer corps at the anti-militarism and mismanagement of the liberal administrations of 1808–1814—they were certainly pleased, but they made it very plain to Ferdinand VII (r. 1808–1833) that what they expected was a return to a semi-mythical golden age in which the privileged corporations would in effect be allowed to rule the roost under the aegis of a monarchy that would be a mere cipher. Weak, foolish, and unintelligent though he may have been, however, Ferdinand VII was having none of this. Content enough to repress the liberals, he therefore refused to abolish many of their reforms: the feudal system, for example, was never restored. From very early on, then, is evident the emergence of a deep split between traditionalists, who wished to roll back the frontiers of absolutism, and modernizers who had no interest in the Constitution of 1812, but at the same time wished to foment social, political, and economic modernization.

To see the conflicts of the nineteenth century as a clash between two Spains is therefore insufficient. Indeed, in the early stages of the long struggle, liberalism was something of a side issue. In 1820, certainly, renewed military dissatisfaction led to a further coup that forced Ferdinand VII to restore the Constitution of 1812. To the traditionalists, of course, this was anathema, and many of them rose in revolt: by 1822, indeed, many parts of the country were swarming with guerrilla bands organized by disaffected members of the elite. Given the fact that the serviles, or apostólicos as they were now known, were associated with the restoration of feudalism, their ability to secure the popular support that this suggests is rather surprising. However, the manner in which the liberals had implemented such policies as the sale of the common lands had left them with few friends among the rural populace, and the latter was therefore easy enough to manipulate, especially as economic misery made promises of pay and pillage very attractive.

Undermined by the guerrilla operations of the traditionalists, the liberals were finally overthrown by a French army in 1823. For a brief moment it seemed that servilismo might finally have triumphed: angry at the manner in which he had been betrayed by the army in 1820, Ferdinand VII allowed himself to be persuaded to abolish it in favor of a peasant militia based on the guerrilla bands of 1822–1823. With the power of the state subverted in this fashion, absolutism might finally have been vanquished, but it was not long before Ferdinand came to his senses and ordered the regular army to be restored. Sensing that their moment was slipping away, the apostólicos became increasingly disaffected. Indeed, in 1827 a group of them led a serious revolt in Catalonia known as la guerra de los agraviados (the war of the aggrieved). But for the time being, most of servilismo were content to place their hopes in the succession to the throne of Ferdinand VII's younger brother, Charles (1788–1855). This seemed assured, for the aging Ferdinand was childless. And at the same time, Charles was by no means as pragmatic as his brother. An extremely devout Catholic, he was inclined to accept the ultramontane pretensions of the servil elements of the clergy, while he also held what he saw as Ferdinand's constant tacking responsible for the survival of liberalism after 1814 and therefore believed that the cause of absolute monarchy depended on an alliance with the apostólicos.

Grumble though many apostólicos did, the outlook for their cause seemed bright enough. In 1830, however, the situation was suddenly transformed. Ferdinand had taken a new wife in the person of María Cristina of Naples (1806–1878), and in that year she produced a daughter named Isabella (later Isabella II, r. 1833–1868). As daughters could not inherit the Spanish throne, the apostólicos were initially not overly concerned, but then Ferdinand delivered a bombshell: his father Charles IV had, or so he claimed, secretly revoked the law that women could not inherit the Spanish throne, the result being, of course, that his baby daughter could take the place of Charles as his successor. Given that Ferdinand showed no signs of abandoning the bureaucratic absolutism to which the apostólicos so objected, from this moment full-scale civil war became inevitable.

the carlist wars, 1833–1836

Indeed, no sooner had Ferdinand expired in 1833 than revolt broke out in many parts of the country. Among the provinces most affected were Galicia, where the system of landowning prevalent in the province made the local elites particularly vulnerable to the land reforms espoused by liberals and enlightened absolutists alike; Navarre and the Basque provinces, where the elites were encouraged in supporting the self-styled Charles V by the threat that these same two forces posed to the system of privileges that gave the region the highly favored relationship it enjoyed with the Spanish throne; and Catalonia, where the experiences of both 1822 to 1823 and 1827 had given rise to bitter memories of repression in an area where large parts of the peasantry had already been radicalized by intense social and economic change.

In the struggle that resulted—the so-called first Carlist War—fighting raged for six years, but want of arms and supplies was a constant problem for the rebel forces, while they were unable to conquer any major city. Exhausted and heavily outnumbered by the loyalist forces, who were supported by both Britain and France, they were eventually forced to surrender in 1839. However, Carlism was not dead: the hatreds generated by the fighting, indeed, imbued it with a certain capacity for hereditary self-perpetuation. In the years 1848 to 1849 and 1873 to 1877 there were therefore two further conflicts, but in these, too, the Carlists were defeated, whereupon they drifted to the margins of Spanish politics, and were not to re-emerge until the crisis of the 1930s gave them a new validity and lease on life.

toward the spanish civil war

It should be noted, however, that by the late nineteenth century Carlism was not the only standard bearer of extreme conservatism in Spain. On the contrary, returning to the followers of María Cristina and the infant Isabella II, it may be seen that they were themselves deeply split between unreconstructed absolutists and those who favored the introduction of some form of liberalism. The loyalist camp had therefore witnessed a series of coups and revolutions as the many differences between neo-absolutists and moderate and radical liberals worked themselves out, and by the 1840s a new and more modern brand of conservatism had emerged and succeeded in entrenching itself in the corridors of power. Known as moderantismo, this stood for a constitutional monarchy, but one in which political power would be monopolized by a narrow social elite, all moves in favor of democratization resisted, and the rights of property protected by a policy of the most brutal repression: it is no coincidence that it was this period that gave Spain the notoriously ruthless paramilitary police force known as the Civil Guard. Though challenged by revolutions in 1854 and 1868 that were to a large extent the result of disputes within their own ranks over power and patronage, the forces that gave rise to this system managed to maintain their power more or less intact until the coming of the Second Republic in April 1931, an important part of the history of that republic being the manner in which it finally healed the schism in the Spanish Right that had caused so much bloodshed in the nineteenth century. Thus, after 1876 Carlism had retreated into its heartlands of the Basque province and Navarre, and gradually rebuilt itself as a political movement known as the Comunión Tradicionalista (Traditionalist Communion). Until 1931 this had remained a relatively unimportant force, but the perceived need to defend the social order brought the Carlists many supporters from the ranks of constitutionalist conservatism. In this fashion Carlism was incorporated into the mainstream of Spanish conservatism, and in 1937 the process was completed by merger with the Spanish Fascist movement known as the Falange and the formation of the single National Movement.

See alsoConservatism; Revolutions of 1820; Spain.


Aronson, Theo. Royal Vendetta: The Crown of Spain, 1829–1965. London, 1966.

Carr, Raymond. Spain, 1808–1975. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808–1939. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Charles J. Esdaile