Carlist Wars Unsettle Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sparked by questions over the legality of Spain’s law of succession, the Carlist Wars metamorphosed into a clash over the country’s political and social future. The wars pitted guerrilla forces of the monarchist, Roman Catholic, and traditionalist conservatives backing the would-be king against the army, which was loyal to the socially progressive liberals favoring the queen. Also, the wars forever altered public perceptions of the traditional powers of Spain, the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

Immediately upon King Ferdinand VII’s death on September 29, 1833, his brother Don Carlos, the self-proclaimed Charles V, challenged both the right of three-year-old Isabella II to the Spanish throne and the regency of her mother, María Cristina. While Charles disputed the legality of Ferdinand’s change (with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1789 Pragmatic Sanction (1789) ) of the ancient Salic succession law to favor his daughter, other Carlists (supporters of Carlos’s claim to the throne) impugned the character of Ferdinand’s widow, claiming that Ferdinand had bequeathed the crown to his brother but that she had suppressed that fact and even forged her dead husband’s name to a decree recognizing Isabella as heir. Carlist Wars Spain;Carlist Wars María Cristina Isabella II Carlos, Don [kw]Carlist Wars Unsettle Spain (Sept. 29, 1833-1849) [kw]Wars Unsettle Spain, Carlist (Sept. 29, 1833-1849) [kw]Unsettle Spain, Carlist Wars (Sept. 29, 1833-1849) [kw]Spain, Carlist Wars Unsettle (Sept. 29, 1833-1849) Carlist Wars Spain;Carlist Wars María Cristina Isabella II Carlos, Don [g]Spain;Sept. 29, 1833-1849: Carlist Wars Unsettle Spain[1820] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 29, 1833-1849: Carlist Wars Unsettle Spain[1820] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 29, 1833-1849: Carlist Wars Unsettle Spain[1820] Ferdinand VII [p]Ferdinand VII[Ferdinand 07];and Carlist Wars[Carlist Wars] Espartero, Baldomero

María Cristina had secretly remarried a commoner, a former sergeant of the royal guard, shortly after Ferdinand’s death, and her new husband was given the title of duke. Because they had several children together, the news of their marriage eventually leaked and made her very unpopular with most of the public, no matter their political propensities.

Carlist support and associated guerrilla warfare had begun by 1834 in the mostly rural, and politically and religiously traditional, northeast of Spain, and it swelled to civil war proportions over much more than succession. Regional jealousies and competitiveness and Roman Catholic Spain;Roman Catholics Roman Catholics;in Spain[Spain] regard for traditional hierarchies fanned the flames. Within months, the Carlist volunteers organized into a small field army, albeit without the same general public support and resources of the government forces. The Quadruple Alliance Quadruple Alliance;and Spain[Spain] of Great Britain, France, and Portugal with the Spanish government, concluded on April 22, 1834, affirmed Isabella’s legitimacy and rejected Charles’s claim, leading to the stationing of British and French troops in Spanish territory to help contain the Carlists in the north. The Carlists were so much more defense-oriented than offense-oriented that they were unable to make more than regional inroads by 1837. That year, however, the government forces were nearly paralyzed by mutiny and the Carlists came close to seizing Madrid, the capital.

Procession at the wedding of Isabella, whose 1846 marriage triggered the Second Carlist War.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Crucially, the government forces had sided with María Cristina and Isabella. While most of the army and its officers refrained from intervening in politics, some had become involved in either moderate or progressive liberalism. This led to a pattern of military intervention and leadership in politics—sometimes outright, sometimes subtle—by army liberals in favor of more representative policies and by those who felt it was their patriotic duty to side with the liberal cause with which the established national government was becoming identified. Many officers, who were mostly middle class, poorly paid, and frustrated with governmental disorganization, favored the modernization and new opportunities promised by liberals. Military leaders filled the institutional vacuum between Ferdinand’s absolutism and the poor organization and weakness of the liberals.

The two main rival political factions, the moderates and progressives, could agree on nothing, and so a seesaw of opposing governments, rewritten constitutions, changing suffrage requirements, and power struggles ensued over the next several years, punctuated by attempts at land and social reform.

In the meantime, Charles made mistakes and had much bad luck. He was not good at military command; some of his best officers were killed. As the traditionalists were worn down by attrition and government forces closed in, a split developed among his supporters, the fanatical apostolic elements and the more practical regional traditionalists. A professional general commanding the main Carlist force accepted the Convention of Vergara Vergara, Convention of (1839) in August, 1839, which promised no reprisals, to incorporate Carlist officers in the regular army and to respect Basque privileges. The last fighting ended when Carlist forces in the east were ousted in 1840. Charles’s claim was later revived, unsuccessfully, by his heirs in 1860, 1869, and 1872.

General Baldomero Espartero, Espartero, Baldomero who commanded the government forces in the north during the final campaign in 1839, dominated the Spanish army in the First Carlist War. He, too, became embroiled in the progressive/moderate seesaw. At this point, the queen regent tried to gain his support by promising to name him prime minister. Civil unrest forced the appointment of Espartero as prime minister and ultimately drove María Cristina to abdicate the regency in 1840. Widespread knowledge of the queen regent’s remarriage and doubts about the sincerity of her support for her liberal ministers and their policies eventually caused even the army to call for her resignation.

The seesaw continued. Although María Cristina had gone into permanent exile in France, she fomented insurrections against Espartero in 1841, 1842 and 1843; Espartero was the dictatorial head of government during that time. Public sentiment turned against Espartero as did the majority in the Cortes, Spain’s parliament. His regime was toppled in 1843 because of his reprisals against the provinces that had most strongly supported the Carlists, reneging on the promise to respect regional privileges, and dissolving the Cortes, acts that were opposed within many of Spain’s garrisons. General Ramón María Narváez Narváez, Ramón María led opposing troops from Valencia and seized Madrid, and Espartero fled to England. Isabella, though just thirteen years old, was declared of age and made the head of the Spanish government.

Carlism had not died after its military defeat, however. Although the dynastic issue remained the central Carlist claim, what really kept the movement alive was the strength of religious traditionalism and the insistence on regional identity and privileges. Interference by Great Britain and France and the marriage of Isabella in 1846 triggered the Second Carlist War (1846-1849). Because it was poorly organized and lacking coordination, it was even less of a challenge to Madrid than was the first war. Again the centers of action lay in the north, in Catalonia, Catalonia Navarre, and the Basque Country.

General Narváez Narváez, Ramón María was appointed chief minister in 1847 in order to cope with the Carlists, which he did. The so-called Second Carlist War was no more than a rising of rural Catalonia, not yet integrated into the liberal social and economic system. The liberal regime in Madrid tended to usurp local privileges without offering the advantages of a modern central government.

When revolution forced Isabella II from her throne in 1868, she joined her mother in exile. In 1870, she renounced the throne in favor of her son, Alfonso XII. Alfonso XII His supporters made it clear that neither his mother nor his grandmother could play an active role in the effort to restore the monarchy. When Alfonso XII regained the Spanish crown in 1874, María Cristina and Isabella II were permitted to return to Spain as visitors but were denied permission to live there permanently or exercise influence in the Spanish government.


The traditional powers of Spain, the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, Spain;Roman Catholics Roman Catholics;in Spain[Spain] were never the same after the Carlist Wars. Both fomented their own opposition. As overreaching, overweening institutions, they inspired their liberal foes. The monarchy, ever fickle and self-serving, irrevocably revealed its ugly faults to its subjects, undercutting the traditional respect for its divine right to rule. The Church’s sacred and secular influence was deeply undercut by its dogged, and often violent, refusal to modernize and to share power and resources. Also, the clergy was seriously affected in terms of numbers and commitment. The Vatican’s argument with the Spanish crown over the naming of bishops resulted in more and more Spanish sees remaining vacant, and many monks and priests of uncertain vocation left the Church. It has been estimated that during the first decades of liberalism approximately one-third renounced their vows altogether.

The liberals, too, revealed their petty power rivalries and their disregard for the people. Moderates and progressives, all liberals, agreed on nothing and put the government and the people through enormous hardships and confusion as they fought, literally and figuratively, over dominance, constitutions, suffrage, resources, and influence. They managed to undermine their own ideals because their excesses contributed to the longevity as well as revival of traditionalism, which seemed to be losing much of its support.

Certainly the Carlist Wars of the nineteenth century planted the seeds of the even more significant Spanish Civil Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) War of 1936-1939, which continued to pit the traditionalists and the progressives against each other, this time under different guises: Falangista/fascist (nationalist and traditionalist) and republican (leftist and progressive).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barahona, Renato. Vizcaya on the Eve of Carlism: Politics and Society, 1800-1833. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1989. A study of the political and social conditions in Vizcaya, a Basque province of Spain, and how these conditions led to Basque support for the Carlist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barton, Simon. A History of Spain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. A comprehensive overview of Spanish history, from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Includes discussion of the Carlist Wars. Maps, chronology, glossary, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Raymond, ed. Spain: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Carr has gathered a selection of essays that provide an excellent overview of the political climate in Spain before, during, and after Isabella’s thirty-five year reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flynn, M. K. Ideology, Mobilization, and the Nation: The Rise of Irish, Basque, and Carlist Nationalist Movements in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Flynn recounts the general evolution of nationalism in western Europe by the nineteenth century, then describes the rise of nationalism among the Carlists and Basques in Spain as examples of this movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Edgar. The Carlist Wars in Spain. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967. This evenhanded analysis of the three Carlist Wars has an epilogue covering events up to 1965 and includes illustrations, a map, and a bibliography.

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Categories: History