The reign of Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) was one of the most complex and important in the history of Spain. It was characterized by a popular war against French occupation and by the struggle of liberal groups to establish a constitutional monarchy.
On Oct. 14, 1784, Ferdinand was born in San Lorenzo del Escorial to the timid Charles, heir to the throne of Spain, and the domineering Maria Luisa of Parma. Two years later his mother became infatuated with Manuel de Godoy, a handsome officer of the Royal Guards. When Charles became king of Spain in early 1789, Godoy began his meteoric rise to power. By the end of 1792, at the age of 25, Godoy was virtual dictator of Spain. In 1796 he worked out an alliance with France against England, and from then till 1808 Spain and England were to be almost constantly at war.
During these years the weak and sickly Ferdinand was educated by Juan Escoiquiz, an amibitious man who inculcated in him a deep-seated hatred for Godoy. Beyond this, Ferdinand's education was one of the worst received by a Spanish monarch. The young prince hated studying, spoke little, rarely smiled, and, it was said, found sardonic satisfaction in all kinds of petty acts of cruelty.
In October 1802 Ferdinand married his cousin Maria Antonieta of Naples. An unattractive 18-year-old, he was described at this time by his mother-in-law as "an absolute blockhead, and not even a husband in the flesh. He is a fool who neither hunts nor fishes, who hangs all day about the room of his unfortunate wife, who busies himself with nothing, and is not even her husband from an animal point of view."
Plots against Godoy
Maria Antonieta soon joined Escoiquiz in his desire to overthrow Godoy, who was becoming more and more unpopular because of the inflation brought on by the war against England. Furthermore, Godoy's confiscation of clerical property had alienated the Church, and the high nobility resented being governed by a man of humble background. Escoiquiz was able to raise a conspiracy against him and organize it around the figure of Ferdinand. When Maria Antonieta died in May 1806, Godoy was accused by rumor of having poisoned her.
In 1807 Godoy told Charles that his son was plotting against him, and Ferdinand was placed under house arrest. Fearing for his life, he wrote his father: "I have done wrong; I have sinned against you both as King and as Father; but I have repented, and I now offer Your Majesty the most humble obedience." Ferdinand was freed and Escoiquiz was exiled to Toledo, but the plotting against Godoy continued.
By this time Napoleon had decided to unseat the Spanish Bourbons, and early in 1808 French troops began to occupy the main cities of Spain. Godoy and the royal family went to Aranjuez, planning to escape from Napoleon's clutches by going to the New World. Ferdinand, however, believed that the French troops were in Spain to support him, and on March 17 he overthrew Godoy at Aranjuez with the help of the aristocracy and a well-organized riot. Godoy was imprisoned, and the frightened Charles abdicated in favor of his son.
Abdication and Captivity
On March 24 Ferdinand made his triumphal entry into Madrid, which had been occupied on the previous day by a large French force commanded by Gen. Murat. A few days later he received an invitation from Napoleon to meet with him at Bayonne. Already the French emperor had offered the throne of Spain to his brother Joseph, and Joseph had accepted it.
Ferdinand still believed that Napoleon was his friend, and in spite of the warnings of Escoiquiz and others he traveled to Bayonne, where he was shocked by Napoleon's demand that he abdicate. When he refused, the French brought Charles, Maria Luisa, and Godoy to Bayonne in order to increase the pressure on him. Finally, on May 2, when the people of Madrid rose against the French army of occupation, Napoleon became furious and threatened Ferdinand with death. The frightened King quickly abdicated in favor of Charles, who then abdicated in favor of Napoleon. A few months later Napoleon's younger brother entered Spain as Joseph I.
But the Spanish people refused to accept Joseph as their king and were joined in their resistance against the French by the armies of the Duke of Wellington. By 1813 the French position in Spain had become untenable, and Napoleon decided to withdraw his troops. Hoping that Ferdinand would honor his promise to keep Spain neutral, Napoleon allowed him to return to Spain in March 1814.
Ferdinand and the Liberals
During the war against the French a group of liberal Spaniards had written the Constitution of 1812, which placed severe limitations on the power of the monarchy. Ferdinand had no intention of accepting this document, and after making sure that the army would support him, he issued a decree on May 4 restoring royal absolutism and suspending the Constitution of 1812. A week later he entered Madrid.
Ferdinand now launched a systematic persecution of those who had collaborated with the French and of those who had dreamed of a constitutional monarchy. He also began to organize an army to send against the rebellious American colonies that had taken advantage of the French occupation of Spain to launch their struggle for independence.
The persecuted liberals began to establish contacts within the army, where service in America was very unpopular. In early 1820 Col. Rafael Riego declared himself for the Constitution of 1812. All over Spain army garrisons either joined the revolt or remained neutral. The frightened Ferdinand gave in and in March took the oath to the constitution.
The liberals, however, proved unable to set up a viable government. In 1822 a royalist revolt broke out in favor of the "imprisoned" Ferdinand, and in the spring of 1823 a royalist army from France was sent to restore Ferdinand to the throne. Everywhere the French were received with enthusiasm. The liberals fled to Seville and then to Cadiz, taking Ferdinand with them. In August they gave up and freed Ferdinand, who had promised a general amnesty.
Ferdinand did not keep his promise, and as in 1814, many liberals found themselves either in prison or in exile. As the years passed, however, Ferdinand's rule became less harsh, and gradually the more moderate liberals were allowed back into the country. This angered the more conservative groups in Spain, who now turned to Ferdinand's brother, the pious and reactionary Don Carlos, for inspiration and leadership.
After the death of his first wife in 1806, Ferdinand had married twice. His third wife died in May 1829, and Ferdinand still had not produced an heir. On Dec. 12, 1829, he married his fourth wife, the beautiful and capable Maria Cristina of Naples, who in October 1830 bore him an heir, the future Isabella II.
In 1713 Philip V had introduced into Spain the so-called Salic Law, which prevented females from succeeding to the throne of Spain. Don Carlos claimed that he would be the legitimate king of Spain if his brother Ferdinand died without a male heir. In 1830 Ferdinand annulled the Salic Law, but Don Carlos still refused to give up his claims. Between 1830 and 1833, therefore, Ferdinand turned more and more to the liberals who, afraid of the reactionary Don Carlos, were solidly behind the princess Isabella. By early 1833 the government of Spain was in the hands of the liberals, the men who had been so harshly persecuted by Ferdinand in the past.
After the summer of 1832 Ferdinand's health began to fail, and he died on Sept. 29, 1833. The Queen would not allow his body to be touched for 48 hours. It lay in state in the throne room of the Palacio Real, where it was seen by that conscientious traveler Richard Ford, who claimed that the face, hideous enough in life, was "now purple, like a ripe fig." Five days after his death, the King was buried among the other kings of Spain in the vault of the Escorial. Ferdinand VII has been praised by conservative Spanish historians as a capable and popular king who struggled to preserve the traditional Spanish way of life. But he has also been attacked by liberal historians as a coward and bloody ogre who tried to sweep back the tide of progress.
There is no biography of Ferdinand VII available in English. Sir Charles Petrie, The Spanish Royal House (1958), is useful. For a scholarly account of the politics and economics of Spain during Ferdinand's reign see Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808-1939 (1966). □
FERDINAND VII (1784–1833), king of Spain (ruled March–May 1808, 1814–1833).
Ferdinand VII has the reputation of being the worst monarch in Spanish history. In some respects this is unfair. So great were the problems faced by Spain during his reign that even the greatest of rulers would have been hard put to cope with them. That said, however, Ferdinand was hardly an admirable figure. Deeply hurt by the hold that the favorite, Manuel de Godoy, possessed over his parents, Charles IV (r. 1788–1808) and María Luisa, he emerged as a cowardly, narrow-minded, unintelligent, suspicious, and highly vindictive young man whose chief characteristic was a violent hatred for king, queen, and favorite alike.
Ferdinand was both extremely foolish and easily malleable, and from 1800 on he fell prey to an aristocratic faction eager to reverse the inroads that Bourbon enlightened absolutism had made on the privileges of the nobility. This faction saw him as a puppet whom they would be able to manipulate at will once the aging Charles IV had died. Terrified of retribution, these conspirators encouraged Ferdinand to seek Napoleon's protection, while also popularizing him as a "prince charming" who was going to initiate a new golden age.
The result was a serious crisis at court, considerable popular agitation, and, in the end, French intervention in Spain and the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. Exiled to France by Napoleon, Ferdinand spent most of the war that followed in comfortable imprisonment. Back in Spain, patriot propaganda conjured up visions of Ferdinand bravely defying Napoleon, but, in reality, he not only made no attempt at resistance but wrote frequent letters to Napoleon congratulating him on his victories.
Released by the emperor in 1814 in a desperate bid to end the Peninsular War, Ferdinand in May of that year overthrew the constitution of 1812—a highly progressive document elaborated in the so-called cortes of Cádiz by a group who became known as the liberales and thereby provided posterity with the modern term liberal—with the aid of a faction of the officer corps that had been alienated by the reforms of the constitution's progenitors and their handling of the war effort. In fairness, Ferdinand did not simply turn the clock back to 1808. Recognizing that some of the changes introduced in the course of the Peninsular War were actually long-standing goals of Bourbon enlightened absolutism, he adopted a surprisingly pragmatic attitude: the abolition of feudalism, for example, was never reversed, while 1817 saw the de facto reintroduction of the system of taxation introduced at Cádiz. Yet the liberals remained unreconciled. More worryingly, trouble also quickly developed in the military. A minority of officers had always been loyal to the constitution and this group was now joined by a number of other malcontents (typically generals who had not been given the rewards they hoped for and lower-ranking figures who had been placed on half-pay in the wake of the army's demobilization).
From 1814 onward, then, Spain witnessed a series of conspiracies in favor of the constitution of 1812, though it was not until March 1820 that Ferdinand's opponents succeeded in overthrowing the regime. There followed the "liberal triennio" of 1820–1823. A new cortes was assembled in Madrid while Ferdinand was reduced to playing the role of a constitutional monarch. Yet the constitution of 1812 brought no more happiness than it had eight years before. Split into increasingly antagonistic factions, the liberals had inherited a bitter war in South America, Ferdinand having strained every nerve to put down the rebellions that had broken out against Spanish rule from 1810 onward. No more willing to give up Spain's empire than the king had been, they sought to build up their forces by imposing conscription. Allied with desperate economic conditions, this provoked serious unrest in the countryside and enabled traditionalist opponents of the liberals to whip up widespread popular rebellion.
An attempt to restore absolutism on the part of the royal guard miscarried in July 1822, but the growing chaos provided a pretext for foreign intervention and in the summer of 1823 a French army crossed the frontier to restore order. Effectively a prisoner, Ferdinand was carried off to Cádiz by the fugitive Spanish government, but resistance collapsed and he was quickly liberated. Absolutism then returned but, a brief period of intense repression notwithstanding, Ferdinand refused to go along with his more extreme supporters and continued to operate in the bureaucratic traditions of his predecessors, Charles III (r. 1759–1788) and Charles IV. In response, his more traditionalist backers themselves rose in revolt in 1827. Defeated in a brief civil war, they then began to coalesce around the figurehead provided by the king's disaffected younger brother, Charles.
Until this point Ferdinand had been childless, but in October 1830 his fourth wife, Maria Cristina of Naples, presented him with a baby daughter. This situation presented many complications. According to the law as it was generally understood, women were excluded from the royal succession, but in 1789 this proscription, which dated from only 1713, had been lifted. Ferdinand could therefore legitimately claim that he now had an heir, but Charles and his supporters could just as legitimately maintain that the change in the law was null and void (for reasons that remain a mystery, it had, in fact, never been published).
In any case, the cause of traditionalism was now in serious trouble, for in his last years Ferdinand's commitment to bureaucratic absolutism was such that he had started to restore to favor many of the reformist thinkers and bureaucrats who had backed the French in the Peninsular War. Civil war therefore loomed yet again, and no sooner had Ferdinand died on 29 September 1833 than the first of three terrible "Carlist" wars broke out. To conclude, then, Ferdinand VII was never a pleasant individual—his ministers, for example, found him cold and ungrateful—and he was often very foolish, particularly in his handling of the army. Underlying his defects, however, was a certain canniness, and this in the end ensured that he was never quite the figure of black reaction of legend.
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