Chapter 214: The Spanish Civil War of 1836
512 2 17
Reading Options
Font Size
A- 15px A+
Table of Contents
Loading... please wait.

Map for reference:


The Dehorned Bull: The Spanish Civil War of 1836
Written by Andrés Saucedo, Galician Academy of Arts and Science, Spain, 2009

“... Perhaps the retribution for Spain’s numerous follies and crimes across the world during the Age of Exploration and Colonialism was finally due in 1836. However, what is certain is that the aging Spanish King, Ferdinand VII, died of an untimely illness on March 9th of 1835, several months after the Treaty of Havana. The Treaty, which all but reinforced the end of the Spanish Empire, was a shock to the king, the government, and the general population. The Spanish government sacrificed thousands of soldiers, dozens of ships of the line and frigates, millions of reales, and vast swathes of territory for an embarrassing defeat in the Anglo-American War. The following Treaty of Barcelona (1835) would further humiliate the once mighty empire that ruled the majority of the Americas, ceding the provinces of Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands to France, leading to a puppet state in eastern Spain. Combined with a succession crisis from the Pragmatic Sanction (that invalidated the Salic Laws and placed the king’s daughter as his successor) and the suppression of Liberal movements for decades with no reforms in sight, it made the perfect powder keg for a violent explosion after the death of the last Iberian absolute monarch.

(The Salic Laws proclaimed that only a male family member of the late king would ascend to the throne. Thus, with Ferdinand having no male heir, his brother, Carlos V, should’ve been proclaimed King of Spain. However, due to Queen Maria Christina’s urgent pleas, Isabella, then Fernanda, was proclaimed the heir apparent through the Pragmatic Sanction)

While the breach of the Salic Laws and the lack of reforms were significant factors in the three-way civil war in Spain, they were not the only reasons for the sudden uprisings that threatened the ‘legitimate’ government led by the deceased monarch’s late queen. Indeed, a devastating cholera epidemic with no government relief, the sharp rise in food prices, the decline in economic productivity and activity across the entire nation following the loss of the Americas, high taxes, and the void of executive authority were all components that created the environment for revolution. And while many blamed the late monarch for the nation’s woes, some believed that the alternatives to the regent and her daughter were much worse for the future of Spain.

After the death of Ferdinand VII, Carlos immediately contested Maria Christina's regency and the heir apparent status of Fernanda (after the death of her older sister, Isabella, in early 1835). Believing that Spain needed a strong monarch to deal with the nation's problems, Carlos refused to take an oath of allegiance to Fernanda as Princess of Asturias, instead opting to accept his God-given responsibilities through the Salic Laws dutifully. His chief supporters were the clerical party (the apostólicos), who considered the Pragmatic Sanction illegal, and land-holding elites, who were frightened by the rhetorics of the Liberals in the Cortes Generales and feared the end of their monopoly over land ownership (though not all land-holding elites swayed to the Carlist cause, as many remained loyal to Christina). Some, especially the apostólicos, believed in Carlos’ claims as the rightful king of Spain. However, most of his supporters were opportunists who pushed their own interests in the face of sweeping changes that would lead to their irrelevance. Nevertheless, they remained a viable threat to Christina’s regency, which prompted harsh actions against the ‘Carlists’ that quickly spiraled into war.

After being sent away to Portugal by Ferdinand shortly before his death, Carlos marched toward the border to Madrid when the opportunity presented itself. However, after being turned back by soldiers loyal to Christina, he strategized with his followers and sought support for his claims within Spain. Christina’s acceptance of centralization efforts carried out by the Moderates in her government and the strong presence of clergy in the countryside allowed Carlos to gain vast support in the rural regions, particularly in the northern provinces. The most substantial base of his support was from Galicia, which Madrid neglected and was heavily influenced by the local rural clergy. The previous king's closure of Galician ports to trade with the Americas, the decline of shipbuilding and prestige, and the unjust tariffs slapped on its exports made the local nobility apathetic to Madrid. Inflamed by the local clergy and promised a reinvigoration of the Galician economy along with greater representation in the Cortes of Castile (the assembly ruling over the Castile-Leon regions), Galicia sided with Carlos. His concessions enticed even traditionally liberal cities such as Ferrol and Lugo, and those that resisted, such as A Coruña, were pacified quickly after being surrounded by pro-Carlist territories.

After marching into Galicia victoriously on December 15th of 1835, the Carlist movement spread outward into Asturias, Santander, Leon, and Old Castile (particularly in Segovia, Avila, Soria, Palencia, and parts of Burgos and Valladolid). Additionally, with the weak central authority in the ‘Republic of Aragon’ (which struggled to create a new nation and government in its initial period), several communities in western Aragon clamored for reunification with Spain under Carlos. Thus, by April 1836, Carlos held a vast swathe of northern Spain under his influence, with additional support from Bourbon legitimists in France and Navarre (though they were very few in numbers). While not particularly charismatic or strategic, his determination and willingness to endure harsh conditions earned him some favor with his followers and kept them loosely united against the opposing factions.

In contrast, Queen Regent Maria Christina struggled to control the government, which had rapidly gained power after Ferdinand’s death. Decades of suppression (including the brutal Liberal Revolts of 1808-1817) and refusal to reform created a deep hatred and anger toward the absolute monarch. His death broke the dam holding back the wave of liberals who sought to reform the decaying state of Spain and transform it into an adaptable, modern nation much like France. The confusing administrative borders, the concentrated land ownership by wealthy elites and nobles, the hidalgo tax and conscription exemptions, the ballooning debt, and the necessity of economic revitalization following the loss of the American colonies and the Anglo-American War were fore-front issues. As mentioned before, port cities such as Ferrol and Cadiz suffered tremendous decline and losses due to the end of the Empire in the Americas, and attempts by the Crown to monopolize textile production collapsed the industry outside Madrid. Along with the immense loss of trade and territory, a bad harvest, and a cholera epidemic ravishing the Andalusia region, Christina faced a precarious situation of navigating the nation in the post-Anglo-American War era. Unfortunately, she was the wrong leader at the wrong time.

Due to the rising tensions within the country, the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament, ‘General Courts’) was assembled with looser restrictions on June 1st of 1835. While Christina appointed some, others purchased their seats or were sponsored by wealthy patrons and groups. Some were even elected to their position by their local communities or guilds. The result was a fundamentally divided Cortes with greater diversity and numerous grievances.There were two primary factions within the newly formed government: the Moderates and the Liberals.

The Moderates comprised most of the military, the low-ranking nobility, the guilds, and the land-holding aristocracy. Essentially ‘moderate absolutists,’ the Moderates sought to deal with Spain’s immediate issues and shelve most progressive reforms for a later time, preferably never. While they recognized the nation's dire situation, they believed that with a few concessions, they could appease the Liberals, and the country could slowly modernize while controlled by the same institutions and groups. They sought to emulate the British model of government and its recent Reform Act, though with some changes. The Moderates supported a strong monarch, total centralism, pure capitalism, increased grain exports, and census suffrage.

On the other hand, the Liberals consisted of urban elites and intellectuals. Containing the bourgeois, capitalists, merchants, a few officers, and radical nobles, the Liberals demanded a wide array of social and economic change to reshape Spain into a modern kingdom. While they avoided making direct references to France and the United States, they alluded to the success of the two powerful republics and their progressive policies for their continued success. The Liberals called for widespread industrialization and land reforms, free trade, basic rights and freedoms, a secular state, state sovereignty, and universal male suffrage with a constitutional monarchy.

The two sides argued for weeks on every issue, and it was clear that neither would concede any ground regarding their core policies. The Moderates believed the Liberals would destabilize Spain and destroy the nation with their radicalism and ‘perversion of traditions.’ They accused the Liberals of being pro-French traitors who would sell out the rest of the country to republics. The Liberals saw Moderates as the regent’s lap dogs and relics of a bygone era when the nation was ailing and needed something transformative. They swore that the Moderates were insane as they supported the continuation of a powerful monarch, despite the previous king bringing about the downfall of the Spanish Empire. They also referred to King George IV, who had nearly brought about the end of the British Empire. With the heir apparent only four years old, it was up to the regent to fill the void and exercise her executive powers to deal with the increasingly escalating political situation.

Christina was, at heart, a conservative and resisted sweeping changes that would dismantle the Ancien Régime. Unsurprisingly, she was swayed by the Moderates and appointed them to government leadership. The composition of the Cortes Generales tilted toward the Moderates, which held a slight majority of seats in the Cortes. Thus, she believed she followed the ‘majority’s will’ when she appointed Jose Ramon Rodil as Spain’s first Secretary of the State. Additionally, Christina believed that she could threaten the Liberals into submission like Ferdinand. Despite the arguments within the parliament, it had agreed to provide aid for the southern cities struck by the cholera epidemic. The regent threatened to withhold the aid unless the Liberals swore loyalty to her and the new Secretary.

This sparked a volatile reaction from the Liberals, who were furious with Christina’s absolutist behavior and the Moderates accepting such behavior. Even some Moderates were horrified by the regent’s actions, recalling Ferdinand and his bloody suppression of dissent during his reign. Cortes members from the south were especially disgusted with the threats and on July 9th, most of the Liberals and some Moderates from Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, Jaen, and Murcia stormed out of the Cortes. This totaled over a hundred representatives and another fifty from the northern provinces left in response (mainly from Galicia and Leon). The Cortes members from Galicia and Leon were nervous by the rhetorics of the Liberals, and with Carlos offering them conditions advantageous to them, they were further swayed to the Carlist cause.

Around this time, the calls for republicanism grew louder among the Liberal faction. Chief amongst them was Agustín Argüelles, a lawyer and brilliant orator. He argued that the monarchy in Spain had run its course and the nation needed a new form of government to prosper in the future. He claimed that as long as a king or queen ruled Spain, the nation would “always be several steps behind the other powers in a rapidly changing world.” A half-baked set of reforms was not enough to fix the systematic issues with Spain; a completely new government, elected by the people, was necessary to make the changes to “release Spain from the constraints of proto-feudalism and archaic values.” The Liberals were coming to the same realization that the French revolutionaries had decades before them. No matter how many reforms they did manage to pass through the Cortes, any future monarch could reverse them and stamp them down due to the monarch’s extraordinary executive powers, just like Ferdinand or the Bourbons in France. Christina’s actions were proof of this, as she leveraged something passed by the Cortes to use against her subjects as a threat.

Perhaps if Ferdinand willingly conceded to some reforms during his reign, or if Christina was more ‘moderate’ in her stance, the radicals would’ve been a small minority among the Liberals. Yet, with each passing day, they were only strengthened and swelled in numbers. As their ideas and promises were publicized throughout southern Spain by the underground press and pamphlets, the people clamored to create an ideal, democratic state.

While the local rural elites were frightened by the remarks, many more were excited about the upcoming changes and demanded Congress act swiftly. The proposal for land reforms (with the famous slogan “Un labor para todas las familias!” which translates to “A labor for every family!” [One labor is about 180 acres]) especially struck a chord within many peasants as Andalusia and Murcia held the highest number of landless peasants and extremely concentrated land ownership. Promises of free trade and the end of the guild and royal monopolies excited support in Cadiz, Malaga, Cartagena, Murcia, and Seville. Above all else, the promise of a government elected and representative of the people, especially in southern Spain during its time of crisis from economic instability and epidemics, created thousands of Liberal loyalists.

The monarchs had their chance; it was now time for the people to have theirs.

Either the ruling classes meet the people at the negotiation table or they shall tremble at seeing the armed masses! The people have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. A world of equality and democracy!

-Progressive Manifesto written by Alexander Hamilton in 1812 under the pseudonym “Gracchus.”

Hundreds of kilometers away from Madrid, a new assembly was gathered in Seville led by those that had walked out of the Cortes. There were a number of new representatives within this assembly, many of whom were elected or called for their liberal views. While the Madrid government was distracted by the rumors of Carlos returning to Spain and leading a civil war against Christina, the ‘Congreso de los Diputados’ (Congress of Deputies) started creating a new Spain. Simultaneously, the southern provinces called up the milicia nacional, the National Militia, in preparations for an armed conflict with the ‘Christinos’ (those loyal to the regent and the heir apparent).

The National Militia was created discreetly during the Liberal Revolts of 1808-1817, as many Liberals believed that a future armed conflict between the regime and their faction was inevitable. Like the Minutemen in America and the National Guard in France, the Militia was not a professional army and only trained semi-regularly. Yet, it would be a starting basis for an army loyal to the Congress in Seville and give its words power. This move was controversial, as some Congress members argued for de-escalation with the Christinos. If they clashed militarily with Madrid, then it was likely that Carlos would march straight into the capital and establish a new government similar to that of Ferdinand's rule. While Christina failed to meet their expectations, she was superior to the even more absolutist Carlos.

Yet others argued that the line had already been crossed. They claimed that it was clear the regent was the same as her predecessors, and it would only be a matter of time before she and the Moderates groomed Fernanda to be like Ferdinand. The new government in Madrid was weak and had nominal support from the people. The military was weakened from decades of constant conflict, with the Anglo-American War disillusioning many soldiers. If they wanted to prevent Carlos from seizing the throne, they would need to seize the government themselves. And now was the perfect time to strike and seize control. Otherwise, Spain would be lost, a forgotten and broken power surrounded by those willing to pick at its corpse. Additionally, the arrival of a Hispanic American officer in Cadiz and his claim of support from the United States emboldened the radicals, though the officer’s claim would not be debunked until the civil war was well underway.

(Colonel Antonio López de Santa Anna of the United States Army was not supported or sponsored by the American government, yet he helped supply weapons, money, and volunteers to help the Liberals during the civil war. Additionally, his group of Hispanic American officers, all veterans of the Anglo-American War, would prove to be invaluable in training the National Militia and the subsequent Republican Army)

The argument over the necessity of a Republic came to a swift end when Christina ordered an army to march down to Seville and arrest the ‘traitors’ when she heard about the Congress. In response, Congress quickly assembled the National Militia under Marshal Baldomero Espartero, a veteran of the Anglo-American War and a loyal Liberal military officer who was a fanatic radical. Twenty thousand militiamen were hastily armed and gathered around Villa Franca in Estremadura. Facing them were thirty thousand soldiers led by General Jose Maria de Torrijos y Uriart, a fellow Anglo-American War veteran and an officer who fought during the Wars of Independence against Spain’s former colonies. While he was a Christino, his faith in the regent had been shaken due to recent events, and his doubts about Christina’s ability to reform Spain resurfaced.

On August 28th, the two sides faced off at the Guadiana River. While Marshal Espartero wanted to fight the Christino army with irregular tactics, Congress believed such tactics would allow the Christinos to march straight into Seville and destroy any opportunity for liberal reforms. Thus, the marshal was forced to fight a pitched battle against a better-equipped and better-trained army. In most cases, this battle should’ve been a complete disaster for the Liberals. Yet, when General Torrijos demanded the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender, Marshal Espartero quipped, “For our cause and the people of Spain, we shall all die here today. If you want my surrender, you shall pick it from my corpse and the corpses of our fellow countrymen.”

General Torrijos ordered his artillery to fire upon the militiamen and marched his troops forward after four hours of bombardment. Believing that his more disciplined and trained soldiers would shatter the National Militia, he charged instead of engaging in a protracted battle with muskets (as only a few were equipped with modern rifles). It is unclear if his desire for a quick and less bloody battle were the reasons for his decision. Nevertheless, the two sides engaged in brutal close combat for hours, with Marshal Esparatero refusing to yield and joining in the fray. He was injured severely in his right shoulder, yet the sight of their leader fighting and bleeding alongside the militiamen roused the defenders' spirits. While many fell to the bayonets and swords of the Christinos, the survivors continued to struggle and displayed an unshakeable resolve to fight to the last man. The Christinos were fighting to put down ‘traitors’ that threatened the regent, while the Liberals were fighting for a better future for themselves and their country.

Seeing the terrible bloodshed and loss of lives on both sides, General Torrijos withdrew at sunset, despite victory being within his grasp. His troops inflicted over twelve thousand casualties for just seven thousand. Yet, he was shocked by the resolve of the National Militia and the Liberals and decided to withdraw his entire army back to Madrid. In his private memoirs, he recalled that he was “aghast at the willingness of the Liberals to throw themselves into the fire and die for their cause, but then [he] remembered the horrors of the Anglo-American War and realized that [he] was, once again, the invader and the Liberals were those dying for their country.”

Once he returned, he promptly resigned and defected to the Liberals, unwilling to lead armies ordered by the Spanish monarch to slaughter thousands senselessly. This prompted a furious tirade from Christina, who urgently sent a messenger to Congress demanding their loyalty or face execution by hanging for their ‘treason.’ The heightened rumors of Carlos securing Galician support for his rule further stressed the regent.

The battle and the ultimatum from Madrid convinced the Congress that revolution was necessary, and it quickly organized a small commission to create a Constitution. Led by Argüelles, the Constitution of Seville (the Liberal Constitution of 1835) was drafted, edited, and approved in two months. Most of the Constitution had already been pre-written by several radicals who had longed for a day of a Republican Spain that answered to no one but its people. The Constitution took inspiration from the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and Citizen and Constitution, and the increasingly popular Progressive Manifesto. Crafted with the demands and necessities of Spain in mind, it was a document that combined the traditions of Spain and organized them into a more modern, progressive, and cohesive manner. It was officially implemented by Seville and supported by the southern provinces on November 12th.

The first words of the Spanish Constitution clarified the loyalties and ideals of the Liberal cause: “We, the Representatives of the Spanish people, place the natural rights and liberties of the people back in their hands, for the creation of an ideal and equal Republic.” This line and the Constitution of Seville would inspire nearby liberal movements, such as Portugal's Liberal Constitution of 1837 and the Gothian Confederacy Constitution of 1836 (born from the Republic of Aragon).

Thus the Republic of Spain was born from the failures of the monarchy and the ashes of the old. Only time would tell if it would be the true ruler of Spain.


AN: I was initially going to fit this into a single chapter... Then I realized just how much background information/events I needed to provide. So there will be one more chapter for the Spanish Civil War, though that still won't cover the war's end.

Next up: Third Coalition War ending, more American POVs, possible chapters covering the Gothian Confederacy and Asia, and more...