Monday, 21 December 2015

Book Review - The Carlist Wars in Spain by Edgar Holt

The Carlist Wars in Spain by Edgar Holt

London: Putnam, 1967

The tangle of 20th and 21st century Spanish politics is confusing to the outsider. The tragedy of the Civil War, the systemic decline and brutality meted out by Franco, and the continuing ructions over secession by various areas of the country make it politically a very foreign place to one living in a stable Westminster democracy. As always though, delving a little into history can help clarify why situations are as they are, and this book by Edgar Holt does that within the limits he has set himself.

Ostensibly a series of wars over succession to the Spanish throne, the Carlist Wars had more to do with the clash of liberalism with tradition, country with city, and industrialization with agrarianism than specific loyalty to a particular royal personage. The initial trigger for the conflict was a dispute over whether a daughter could inherit the throne from her father. Ferdinand's brother, Don Carlos, who had been heir to the Spanish throne, thought that Ferdinand's daughter Isabella was not the legitimate heir, and that he was the rightful king.

Don Carlos had the support of the Church and the countryside, especially in Northern Spain, where Isabella's connection to more liberal elements in Spain were met with deep suspicion. Isabella became queen as a young child, and initially her mother Cristina, as regent, kept the Carlist forces at bay, but eventually her immaturity and lack of diplomatic skill allowed Don Carlos to start the first Carlist War.

While there were some set-piece battles, much of the war became a series of guerrilla raids through North and Central Spain. A particular feature of the war was the brutality meted out to those unfortunate enough to be made prisoner, with no quarter shown much of the time. Holt spends much time on the English Legion sent to Spain to help Isabella and Cristina. A semi-official force (the English government supported the Liberal Isabella, even though King William was sympathetic to the Carlist cause), the Legion did perform some good things on the battlefield, but failed to deliver any decisive blow.

Eventually Don Carlos' generals all came to see that there would be no decisive battle, and with the major cities all staying firmly in Isabella's camp, eventually the Carlist cause faded away, and Don Carlos himself went into exile, but never renounced his right to rule.

Isabella eventually left Spain in disgrace, leading to a revival of Carlism, with Don Carlos' grandson, who styled himself Carlos VII, trying once again to wrest the throne from the Italian-born Amadeo, who was imposed on the Spanish people and rapidly became unpopular. When Amadeo abdicated, and Spain became a republic, Carlos saw his chance to gain further support from disaffected monarchists who had initially supported Amadeo. Unfortunately for Carlos Isabella's son, Alfonso came to claim the throne after a coup dislodged the republic. Alfonso, with his ties to the Church and the traditions of Spain, took the ground from under Carlos' feet, and led to him losing support and leaving Spain.

The Carlist cause continued on however, bubbling away under the surface, supporting the traditions of Spanish Roman Catholicism, and traditional rights of local areas (especially in the Basque country), and generally being a thorn in the side of the more progressive forces in Spanish political life. Holt's book discusses Franco's use (and abuse) of Carlist forces in the Spanish Civil War, noting that they (in 1967) were still upholding the rights of the Carlist claimants against the eventual succesor to Franco, Juan Carlos.

Holt's book is easy to read, and for those interested in 20th century Spanish history, is a good introduction to the sources of much of the trouble.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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