Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne

Under King Charles III, Spain reached the high point of its “enlightened absolutist” monarchy. Charles initiated far-reaching social, political, and economic reforms, using his nearly absolute power to improve his society and the lives of its people.

Summary of Event

When Charles III succeeded his half brother Ferdinand VI to the throne of Spain in 1759, he inherited an empire that had been arrested in the process of decline and was once again becoming a major power in European affairs. He was the fourth monarch of the new Bourbon Dynasty, which had succeeded to the throne after the death of the Habsburg Charles II (1700) and the resulting War of the Spanish Succession Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714) . [kw]Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne (1759)
[kw]Throne, Charles III Gains the Spanish (1759)
[kw]Spanish Throne, Charles III Gains the (1759)
Spanish throne
[g]Spain;1759: Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne[1540]
[c]Government and politics;1759: Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne[1540]
[c]Social issues and reform;1759: Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne[1540]
Charles III (1716-1788)
Floridablanca, count de
Campomanes, Pedro Rodríguez de
Aranda, count de
Grimaldi, Jerónimo
Squillace, Leopoldo di Gregorio

His father, Philip V, and his two half brothers, Louis I and Ferdinand VI, had begun and continued a policy of centralization and modernization that emulated Bourbon reforms in France. Charles inherited these reforms, but he also built upon them more effectively than any of the other Bourbons. In so doing, he had two initial advantages: His predecessors had laid the foundations for reform; and Charles also had experience in governing. Through the machinations of his mother, Isabella Farnese, he had been successively duke of Parma and Tuscany and then king of the Two Sicilies. Thus, he came to Spain prepared to rule.

Historians have portrayed Charles as Spain’s Enlightened despotism enlightened despot. Certainly he aimed to establish royal absolutism Absolute monarchy and chose ministers who were familiar with the enlightened currents of the time. Yet Charles himself had little interest in intellectual matters, read almost nothing, and preferred hunting to all other activities. What distinguished him from his predecessors was a willingness to rule decisively after consultation with his ministers. Administrative centralization had been established when Charles came to the throne, but he raised it to its most efficient level. The old system of councils was replaced by well-organized ministries run by career bureaucrats, completely subservient to the king.

The first phase of Charles’s reign lasted until 1766 and constituted the most radical attempt at reform. Bellicose by nature, Charles plunged Spain into the Seven Years’ War Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] in 1762, with disastrous results. Allied with his French Bourbon cousins, Charles suffered a humiliating defeat, made worse by the British capture of Havana and Manila. Although these ports were returned to Spain by the Peace of Paris, the war showed how exposed the Spanish empire was to British seapower. Imperial defenses needed expensive reforms. Meanwhile, Charles relied heavily on two Italian advisers: Jerónimo Grimaldi, who advised the king on foreign affairs, and Leopoldo di Gregorio Squillace (Hispanicized as Esquilache), who oversaw finances and the military. Along with the king’s chief economic expert, Pedro Rodríguez Campomanes, they attempted to impose domestic reform on Spain. They tried to reduce aristocratic power by using commoners to staff the government and worked to increase the tax burden upon the nobility and the Catholic Church. A great problem for Spain, entailed estates and mortmain concentrated land in the hands of the aristocracy and clergy. The result was inefficient agriculture and high grain prices. In turn these caused social tension for the growing Spanish population. Campomanes, a Physiocrat Physiocracy who believed that a nation’s wealth depended on wise use of its land, proposed reforms to redistribute land and thus create more small farmers. He also tried to deregulate the grain trade. Grain

Such proposals heightened opposition among entrenched power groups. Resistance to the reforms, resentment of Charles’s foreign advisers, and the crisis provoked by grain shortages led to a serious tumult in Madrid in March, 1766, the so-called Esquilache Revolt Esquilache Revolt, which also spread to other cities. Alarmed by the violence, Charles fled Madrid, removed Squillace, but asserted royal authority in 1767 by exiling the Jesuits, reported to have helped foment the revolt. The Inquisition, that most feared of Spanish institutions, found its powers curtailed, and few cases were tried in its courts. Grimaldi retained his influence in foreign affairs, whereas domestic policy fell to the count of Aranda, president of the Council of Castile, and Campomanes, who continued to push for agrarian reform.

More than three-quarters of the arable land of Spain was held by a few families or corporations. Much of this property was still controlled by the Mesta, the sheep-owners’ guild, whose members allowed their sheep to graze on land desperately needed for agrarian production. Appointed head of the Mesta, Campomanes broke its hold on the land and allowed villages to enclose their lands to protect them from the sheep. He ordered the sale of uncultivated land and the division of some communal properties among the townspeople. He forced the sale of idle church lands and reduced the number of monastic establishments. He encouraged the immigration of foreign peasants to show Spaniards how to make the land produce more, and of foreign artisans to stimulate Spanish industry; he also established an agricultural school. Although many of these reforms, particularly forced sale of land, were not seen through to completion, Campomanes laid the foundation for nineteenth century reforms.

The final phase of Charles’s reign lasted from 1776 to 1788. By that time, Grimaldi and Aranda had both fallen into disfavor, and the king turned administration of the government over to the count of Floridablanca. Almost immediately, Floridablanca confronted war with the British. Eager to avenge Spain’s defeat during the Seven Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] Years’ War, Charles joined France in 1778 to aid the North American colonists in their rebellion against George III. The successful outcome resulted in part from naval and military reforms carried out earlier by Aranda.

Floridablanca also worked to strengthen Spain’s economy. Textile factories were modernized in Catalonia, thereby making the region productive again; canals and roads were constructed; tax collection was improved; and the Spanish sales tax was lowered to a reasonable level. To increase commerce with Spain’s American colonies, the crown modified its mercantilist policies and decreed intra-imperial free trade in 1778. This enabled all Spanish ports to trade directly with all of Spanish America except Mexico and Venezuela, which were finally added in 1789. The upsurge in American silver production helped imperial commerce prosper. Modernization of universities and schools fostered learning, as did the establishment of economic societies that helped spread “enlightened” ideas and technology.


Charles was the greatest of the eighteenth century Spanish Bourbons. He and his ministers attempted to modernize and strengthen Spain. Nevertheless, opposition from entrenched power groups such as the aristocracy and the clergy checked the reformers. Nor did the crown push through truly effective land or tax reforms. Those waited for later generations. Charles’s legacy was also undermined by his incompetent son, Charles IV, who succeeded to the throne in 1788; and by the onset of the French Revolution, which not only threw Spain in turmoil but also discredited the modernizers.

Further Reading

  • Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958. The standard intellectual history of Spain during the eighteenth century, it portrays an enlightenment imposed on the nation by the court and its ministers.
  • _______. Rural Change and Royal Finances in Spain at the End of the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. A massively detailed study of royal policy during the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV regarding agrarian reform and the partially successful attempt to invigorate agriculture by disentailing ecclesiastical and aristocratic estates.
  • Hull, Anthony H. Charles III and the Revival of Spain. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. Provides good background on Charles’s Italian career. Holds that his greatest virtue as king of Spain was his willingness to use his power pragmatically to further reform.
  • Kuethe, Allen J. “Towards a Periodization of the Reforms of Charles III.” In Iberian Colonies, New World Societies: Essays in Memory of Charles Gibson, edited by Richard L. Garner and William B. Taylor. Private printing, 1985. Provides a chronological framework for understanding how reform of the Spanish empire unfolded during the reign of Charles III. Emphasizes his determination to take revenge on the British.
  • Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1700-1808. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1989. The best overall treatment in English of Spain and its empire in the eighteenth century, giving Charles less credit for policy and reform initiatives than is customary.
  • Noel, Charles C. “Charles III of Spain.” In Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, edited by H. M. Scott. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Portrays Charles as a leading example of a monarchy sympathetic to the intellectual currents of the eighteenth century and willing to support reforms to modernize his realms.
  • Stein, Stanley J., and Barbara H. Stein. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Examines Charles’s attempts to reform Spain’s political, economic, and social institutions, and to modernize Spain’s relationship with its colonies. The authors conclude that Charles’s efforts ultimately failed, and Spain was ill prepared for future upheaval in Europe and its colonies.

War of the Spanish Succession

Seven Years’ War

Suppression of the Jesuits

Spanish-Algerine War

Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata

Siege of Gibraltar

Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II

Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque

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