Isabella II (1830–1904)

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Isabella II (1830–1904)

Queen of Spain from 1833 to 1868, during the nation's difficult transition from absolutism to constitutional monarchy. Name variations: Isabel II or Maria Isabella Louisa. Born on October 10, 1830, in Madrid, Spain; died on April 9, 1904, in Paris, France;eldest surviving daughter born to Ferdinand VII, king of Spain (r. 1813–1833), and his fourth wife, Maria Cristina I of Naples (1806–1878); married Francisco de Asís or Asiz, on October 10, 1846 (died April 17,1902); children: Ferdinand or Fernando (1850–1850); Maria Isabel Francisca (b. 1851); Maria Cristina (1854–1854); Alfonso or Alphonso XII (1857–1885), king of Spain (r. 1875–1885); Pilar (b. 1861); Maria de la Paz (1862–1946); Eulalia (b. 1864, who married Anthony Bourbon, 5th duke of Galliera).

Marriage of Ferdinand VII to Maria Cristina of Naples (1829); publication of Pragmatic Sanction (March 29, 1830); birth of Isabella (October 10,1830); birth of Princess Luisa Fernanda (January 30,1832); death of Ferdinand VII (September 29, 1833); Isabella II proclaimed monarch with Maria Cristina as regent (October 24, 1833); onset of first Carlist War against monarchy of Isabella II; end of the first Carlist War (1839); Isabella II declared of age to rule (November 10, 1843); attempted assassination of Isabella II by Angel de la Riva (May 1847); attempted assassination of Isabella II by Franciscan priest Martín Merino (February 2, 1852); birth of Prince Alphonso (November 28, 1857); battle of Alcolea (September 28, 1868); Isabella left for France and exile (September 30, 1868); abdicated in favor of Alphonso (June 25, 1870); Alphonso XII proclaimed king of Spain (December 1874); death of Francisco de Asís (April 17, 1902).

Born October 10, 1830, to Ferdinand VII of Spain and Maria Cristina of Naples , the baby Isabella entered a chaotic world. The French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian peninsula had unleashed a bitter conflict between Spanish liberals and conservatives. Napoleon forced Ferdinand VII to abdicate in 1808. Lacking a king, patriots resisting the French wrote a liberal constitution in 1812. With the invaders' defeat and Ferdinand's restoration to power, he attempted to return to many aspects of 18th-century royal absolutism. His reactionary behavior was insufficient to please Spain's most ardent conservatives, but it did antagonize the growing middle class. By 1830, political factionalism had torn the nation apart, with political murders, executions, military coups (pronunciamentos), and discord.

Isabella was Ferdinand's heir, as he had no surviving children from his three previous marriages to Maria Antonia of Naples , Maria Isabel of Portugal , and Maria Josepha of Saxony . In fact, he had seemed likely to die without children, and his brother Carlos (Charles, d.1855) anticipated he would inherit the throne. Maria Cristina's pregnancy threatened his ambitions. Carlos and his followers, among whom were many of the most conservative and proclerical Spaniards, argued that if the baby were a girl, she could not rule. They noted that more than a century earlier, Philip V had made binding on Spain the Salic law, prohibiting women from ruling. Nonetheless, in 1789 Charles IV had secretly rescinded that decree, and on March 29, 1829, Ferdinand made the revocation public.

The Carlists refused to recognize Isabella's claim to the throne when Ferdinand died on September 29, 1833. Nonetheless the Cortes (national assembly) proclaimed Isabella II queen and appointed her mother regent, as Ferdinand's will had stipulated. France, Great Britain, and Portugal recognized her right, but the Vatican and several conservative Catholic nations sided with Carlos. War erupted between the government and Carlists. To preserve Isabella's claim, Maria Cristina decreed the Royal Statute of 1834. This created a Cortes based on ancient tradition and appealed to Moderates and Progressives by establishing a constitutional monarchy. The regent also considered marrying Isabella to Carlos' son, hoping thereby to heal the Carlist breach.

Maria Cristina I of Naples (1806–1878)

Queen and regent of Spain. Name variations: María Cristina; Maria Cristina of Naples or María Christina I of Naples; Cristina of Naples; Christina of Naples; Marie-Christine of Sicily; Maria Cristina de Borbón or Bourbon. Born in Naples, Italy, on April 27, 1806; died at Havre, France, on August 22 or 23, 1878; daughter of Francis I, king of the Two Sicilies (r. 1825–1830), and Marie Isabella of Spain (1789–1848); daughter of Francis I, king of the Two Sicilies, and Marie Isabella of Spain (1789–1848); sister of Teresa Cristina of Bourbon (1822–1889, empress of Brazil); became fourth wife of Ferdinand VII, king of Spain (r. 1813–1833), on December 11, 1829; secretly married a soldier named Agustín Fernando Muñoz y Sánchez in an irregular ceremony on December 28, 1833; children: (first marriage) Isabella II (1830–1904) and Luisa Fernanda (1832–1897); (second marriage) four more. Ferdinand VII's first wife was Maria Antonia of Naples (1784–1806); his second was Maria Isabel of Portugal (1797–1818); his third was Maria Josepha of Saxony (1803–1829).

The First Carlist War colored the early years of Isabella's reign and made the monarchy dependent upon a series of generals-turned-politicians. Meanwhile, Maria Cristina failed to provide suitable education or discipline for the young queen. Isabella liked music and had a beautiful singing voice. But she was, in the view of one historian, "indolent, untidy, unkempt, and was ruled by her whims which were always satisfied." This was largely the fault of the adults around her. Martin S.A. Hume, a British observer, recorded that she was a "stoutly built, very precocious girl with full cheeks, a snub nose, and thick sensuous lips, incredibly ignorant but with a great deal of natural shrewdness; in manner somewhat bluff, jovial and outspoken." She also suffered from ichthyosis, or dry scaly skin, which forced her to take periodic medicinal baths at sea resorts.

Maria Cristina did little to build stable, long-lasting support for Isabella. The terms of the regency stipulated that Maria Cristina could not remarry. But within three months of Ferdinand's death she fell in love with a soldier named Agustín Fernando Muñoz y Sánchez and secretly married him in an irregular ceremony. Over the years, she gave birth to four children with Muñoz, none of whom she could publicly recognize.

Her behavior set an example for Isabella, whose actions later scandalized public opinion. Maria Cristina's conduct and the continuing political crisis made her increasingly unpopular. She finally abandoned the regency on October 12, 1840, and went to Paris, leaving her ten-year-old daughter under the protection of the first minister, General Baldomero Espartero.

Intrigues, quarrels, and personal ambitions embroiled the government. Hoping to end the turmoil, on November 10, 1843, the Cortes declared Isabella of age, and her personal rule began. Yet she had little preparation for governing, a task which would have bedeviled the most expert politician. For awhile, minister Salustiano Olázaga served as the girl's tutor, and he announced his intention of providing her with an education equivalent to that of Britain's Queen Victoria . In reality, however, he seemed more intent on maintaining her under his influence than preparing Isabella for intellectual and political independence. When ministers and leaders of the Cortes required her opinion on matters of state, she felt inadequate. Her education and training did not help her resolve competing public policies. Perhaps looking for support, she allowed Maria Cristina to return from France, but her mother became one more conservative player in the confusion of Spanish politics.

As Isabella approached puberty, Spanish politicians and foreign governments competed to select a husband for her. The conspiring parties vetoed several potential candidates, leaving Francisco de Asís by default, even though no one thought him appropriate. He was the son of Ferdinand's brother and Maria Cristina's ambitious sister, Louisa Carlotta of Naples . Extremely devout, he posed the danger of siding with the Carlists. Worse still, he was, wrote one historian, "effeminate, believed impotent, and generally thought a homosexual." The better choice would have been his brother Enrique, but he was too liberal to suit the conservatives. Forced to marry Francisco or postpone marriage for several years, Isabella apprehensively agreed to wed him. Queen Victoria reportedly remarked: "The little Queen I pity so much for the poor child dislikes her cousin, and she is said to have consented against her will."

Francisco proved no better a husband than rumor predicted. In her old age, Isabella observed, "What shall I say of a man who on his wedding night wore more lace than I?" They had little in common and often lived apart in different palaces. Francisco occasionally tried to intervene in the government, but neither Isabella nor the politicians tolerated his interference. As her marriage provided no love or companionship, she soon turned to other remedies. The first of her lovers was General Francisco Serrano. Ambitious and cold, he revealed to the public the true nature of Isabella's marriage to Francisco. This drove an even larger wedge between the royal couple, who had never been united in the first place. Her friends advised that she seek an annulment of her marriage. In late 1847, the papal nuncio and General Ramón María Narváez, first minister at the time, managed to work out a superficial reconciliation between the queen and her consort.

I am convinced that if all the ministers who surrounded her had fulfilled their duties, she would have died occupying the throne, and the fortunes of Spain would have radically changed direction.

—Natalio Rivas

Despite her irregular private life, Isabella achieved some popularity for her generosity and love of amusement. On April 23, 1848, she forgave a debt of more than 100,000,000 reales owed her by the state, announcing "The future doesn't matter to me." On other occasions, she donated diamonds to the poor. Once she offered a donation of such outrageous proportions that her minister insisted on putting that many coins on the table. Isabella was amazed by the quantity she had been prepared to give away. Two failed attempts to assassinate her also garnered public sympathy for Isabella. Meanwhile, she spent large amounts on balls, the theater, and other entertainments. "She crammed her existence," wrote one biographer, "with as much amusement as she could." Isabella's scandals alienated many in Madrid, whose proximity to the court made them more aware of her behavior. Outside the capital, however, many Spaniards remained loyal to her as their monarch.

Motherhood sobered her to some extent. On July 11, 1850, she gave birth to a son Fernando, but the infant lived only a few moments. Although Francisco was not the father, to deny his paternity would have meant making himself completely irrelevant. Narváez forced the king-consort to behave as though nothing were amiss, and Francisco began spending more time with Isabella. On December 20, 1851, she gave birth to Maria Isabel Francisca . A young officer, José Ruíz de Arana, was probably the father. Their liaison lasted until late 1856, and he was the first who truly loved her rather than using his relationship with Isabella to enhance his career. In early 1854, another daughter, Maria Cristina, was born, but she lived only three days. Taking a new lover, captain of engineers Enrique Puigmoltó y Mayáns, she gave birth to Alphonso on November 28, 1857. Isabella was delighted with the crown prince, remarking: "No one in the world could be happier than I at this moment." Three more daughters (Pilar , Maria de la Paz , and Eulalia ) were born from 1861 to 1864.

Isabella II reigned during a significant restructuring of Spain. With peace restored at the end of the Carlist War, foreign capital flowed in to build railroads, develop mines, and establish a banking system. The nation did not experience general prosperity, but many of the upper and middle classes benefitted. This permitted Moderates and Progressives to reconcile their ideological differences and found the Liberal Union, which temporarily occupied the political center. Some Catholic conservatives refused to join, resentful that the government had sold off Church lands and had refused to re-establish the Inquisition. On the Left, some advocated republicanism, and within the working class were the first stirrings of socialism.

Isabella continued to rely upon the political expertise of generals such as Espartero, Narváez, and Leopoldo O'Donnell. During the regency, such military leaders had protected her monarchy from the Carlists. Later they often provided more effective rule than the civilian politicians. Generals were also necessary to political change. The Spanish political system enabled the governing party to manipulate election results, making it impossible to throw the incumbent party out of office except through a pronunciamento. With the Liberal Union, however, such pronunciamentos were less common after 1854 and the ministries more stable. Narváez and O'Donnell alternated as her chief ministers between 1854 and 1866, aided by the mid-century economic boom. The decade beginning in 1854 was the best of her reign.

Her troubles began to mount in 1863, despite military victories achieved by the regime in Spanish Morocco. In that year, conservatives engineered O'Donnell's fall and exile, bringing down the Liberal Union and placing the Progressives in the opposition. O'Donnell fell in part because his foreign policy was not sufficiently pro-Vatican. Even so, the constitution of 1856 made Catholicism the state religion, and Spain rejected religious toleration. Isabella's support of the Church sufficed for Pius IX to award her the Golden Rose. Her own pro-Catholic domestic and foreign policies may have derived in part from a sense of guilt over her sexual liaisons. Liberals claimed that Sor (Sister) Patrocinio , a shadowy nun who claimed to have the stigmata, controlled the queen. Meanwhile many Spaniards despised Isabella's mother and her soldier-husband Muñoz, who was reportedly venal and meddlesome. Isabella herself had become obese.

Maria Isabel Francisca (1851–1931)

Princess of Spain. Name variations: Princess Isabel, the infanta; Maria Isabel Francisca; Isabella of Spain; countess of Girgenti. Born on December 20, 1851; died on April 23, 1931; daughter of Isabella II (1830–1904), queen of Spain, and probably a young officer, José Ruíz de Arana; tutored by Frances Calderón de la Barca (1804–1882); married Gaetano also known as Caetano de Borbón (1846–1871), count of Girgenti (a distant cousin), on May 13, 1868.

Because the infanta Maria Isabel Francisca, known as Isabel, was the oldest royal child, and her only brother was weak and chronically ill, it was apparent that she was being educated as the future queen of Spain. In 1868, when the infanta was married, at age 16, to Caetano de Borbón, a distant cousin, a revolution swept through Spain, requiring the royal family to flee into exile in France. Young Isabel, who had developed an almost filial attachment to her former tutor Frances Calderón de la Barca , now wrote from France pleading that Fanny return to her side as confidant, educator, and companion. Isabel's husband had by then developed a severe mental illness (probably acute depression) and was displaying, among other things, suicidal tendencies. In late 1871, despite all efforts, Caetano shot himself to death. While Fanny was consoling the young Isabel in France, Queen Isabella II abdicated the throne of Spain to her—still sickly—son, Alphonso. In 1874, Parliament officially proclaimed him king.

Maria de la Paz (1862–1946)

Spanish princess. Name variations: María. Born in 1862; died in 1946; daughter of Isabella II (1830–1904), queen of Spain, and Francisco de Asiz or Asis; married Louis Ferdinand of Bavaria (b. 1884).

By 1866, she faced a crisis. A general European depression sapped Spain. Progressives clamored for power to no avail. Conservatives controlled the electoral machinery, and Isabella refused to call a Progressive ministry. She had grown up in a conservative court and was too pious to feel comfortable with the anticlerical measures advocated by some Progressives. Two attempted Progressive pronunciamentos failed, one by General Juan Prim, a hero of the fighting in Morocco. Isabella called upon Narváez to crush the dissidents, but his iron fists only added to the discontent. The queen flaunted a new lover, the actor Carlos Marfori. Spain's political elite increasingly saw her as an obstacle to the country's modernization. In April 1868, Narváez died, depriving her of a stalwart defender. In the "September Revolution," Prim, Admiral Juan Bautista Topete, and Isabel's former lover, General Serrano, pronounced against the monarchy. Serrano defeated Isabella's loyalists at the battle of Alcolea on September 28. Two days later, Isabella fled to France when the army refused to defend her further.

Generously received by Napoleon III, Isabella took up residence in Paris, while Prim sought a new monarch for Spain. On June 25, 1870, she abdicated in favor of Alphonso, hoping thereby to save the throne for her son. She also proclaimed her immense relief to be rid of the responsibilities of government. In Spain, however, the Cortes declared a perpetual exclusion of Isabella and her family. Prim and Spain instead turned to Prince Amadeo of Savoy, making him king in late 1870. Amadeo persevered until 1873, when he also abdicated, and Spain then struggled as a republic.

In December 1874, a pronunciamento declared in favor of Isabella's son Alphonso XII. Intelligent and well educated, the young king displayed a dignity and sense of responsibility which his mother lacked. She visited Spain occasionally but generally stayed in France, her life "monotonous and uneventful." The king's early death from tuberculosis in 1885 provided no opportunity for Isabella, who lacked any constituency in Spain. Neither did she have any desire to reign again. Instead her heir was succeeded by his posthumous son, Alphonso XIII. In 1902, Francisco de Asís died in anonymity. Two years later, on April 9, Isabella succumbed to influenza in Paris. Her descendants transferred her remains to the Escorial palace outside Madrid and buried her in the royal pantheon, along with Spain's other monarchs.

Isabella II presented Spain with contradictions. She caused scandal yet was generous and pious. As a ruler attempting to moderate from above the partisan disputes of Spanish politics, she remained too partial to the conservatives. Of her affairs and frivolity, notes one author, "innumerable libels, songs, engravings, and every type of defamatory literature were produced; of her positive and real acts of virtue, abnegation, and generosity, little has been written." Her greatest political mistake, according to historian Raymond Carr, "was that by her refusal to admit the Progressives to power she tested their dynastic loyalty too hard and drove them to revolution."


Angelón, Manuel. Isabel II: Historia de la reina de España. Madrid: Librería Española, 1860.

Carr, Raymond. Spain, 1808–1975. Oxford: University Press, 1983.

Herr, Richard. An Historical Essay on Modern Spain. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971.

Llorca, Carmén. Isabel II y su tiempo. 3 ed. Madrid: Ediciones ISTMO, 1984.

Polnay, Peter de. A Queen of Spain: Isabel II. London: Hollis & Carter, 1962.

suggested reading:

Boetzkes, Ottilie G. The Little Queen: Isabella II of Spain. NY: Exposition Press, 1966.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History and chair, Department of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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Isabella II (1830–1904)

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Isabella II (1830–1904)