Charles III

Known as an enlightened despot, Charles III (1716-1788) was king of Spain from 1759 to 1788. His reign was marked by economic progress and political stability and is usually considered one of the greatest in Spanish history.

The son of Philip V of Spain and his second wife, Elizabeth Farnese of Parma, Charles III was born in Madrid on Jan. 20, 1716. His education was excellent—at the age of 4 he wrote a letter in French to his parents—and during his youth he developed a great interest in the arts and a consuming passion for the hunt.

Since Philip V had had two sons, Louis and Ferdinand, by his first wife, Elizabeth felt that Charles and her other children stood no chance of inheriting the throne of Spain. Therefore she looked for thrones for them in Italy. Through her influence Charles was recognized as Duke of Parma in 1731 and as king of Naples and Sicily in 1736 after the War of the Polish Succession.

Charles proved a successful and popular king in Italy. He surrounded himself with able advisers and did much for his kingdom. He was also influenced by the ideas of enlightened despotism then current in the Italian peninsula. In 1738 Charles married Maria Amalia of Saxony. After bearing five daughters, in 1747 she gave birth to Philip, who was an idiot. But in the following year their second son and heir, Charles, was born. A third son, Ferdinand, was born in 1751.

When Philip V died in 1746, he was succeeded by his son Ferdinand VI (Louis had died earlier). Ferdinand had no children, and on his death in 1759 Charles, his half brother, became king of Spain. The new monarch renounced the throne of Naples in favor of his third son, Ferdinand. Not long after his accession Maria Amalia died, and Charles never married again.

When he arrived in Spain, Charles was a vigorous and healthy man of 43, eager to pursue a policy of active royal statesmanship. Assisted by able and dedicated ministers such as the Count of Arenda and the Count of Floridablanca, he introduced a series of reforms that strengthened the authority of the Crown. He asserted the monarchy's power over the Church by expelling the Jesuits from Spain in 1767. Charles brought about a general economic expansion, implemented important changes in the educational system, and modernized Spain's military forces.

Charles signed the Family Compact in 1761 with France, which led to Spain's involvement in the Seven Years War. In the Treaty of Paris of 1763 Spain lost Florida but was ceded Louisiana. In 1779 Charles was drawn into war with England in the American Revolution; by the Treaty of Paris of 1783 Spain recovered Florida.

Charles's internal and colonial reforms greatly benefited Spain. He died on Dec. 14, 1788, and was succeeded by his son Charles IV.

Further Reading on Charles III

In English, Joseph Addison, Charles the Third of Spain: The Stanhope Essay (1900), is not entirely satisfactory. Far more useful and scholarly is the Spanish work by Enrique de Tapia Ozcariz, Carlos III y su época: Biograffa del siglo XVIII (1962). For a brief account of Charles and his reign see Charles Petrie, The Spanish Royal House (1958).

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