The reign of Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) was one of the most complex and important in the history of Spain. It was characterized by a popular war against French occupation and by the struggle of liberal groups to establish a constitutional monarchy.
On Oct. 14, 1784, Ferdinand was born in San Lorenzo del Escorial to the timid Charles, heir to the throne of Spain, and the domineering Maria Luisa of Parma. Two years later his mother became infatuated with Manuel de Godoy, a handsome officer of the Royal Guards. When Charles became king of Spain in early 1789, Godoy began his meteoric rise to power. By the end of 1792, at the age of 25, Godoy was virtual dictator of Spain. In 1796 he worked out an alliance with France against England, and from then till 1808 Spain and England were to be almost constantly at war.
During these years the weak and sickly Ferdinand was educated by Juan Escoiquiz, an amibitious man who inculcated in him a deep-seated hatred for Godoy. Beyond this, Ferdinand's education was one of the worst received by a Spanish monarch. The young prince hated studying, spoke little, rarely smiled, and, it was said, found sardonic satisfaction in all kinds of petty acts of cruelty.
In October 1802 Ferdinand married his cousin Maria Antonieta of Naples. An unattractive 18-year-old, he was described at this time by his mother-in-law as "an absolute blockhead, and not even a husband in the flesh. He is a fool who neither hunts nor fishes, who hangs all day about the room of his unfortunate wife, who busies himself with nothing, and is not even her husband from an animal point of view."
Plots against Godoy
Maria Antonieta soon joined Escoiquiz in his desire to overthrow Godoy, who was becoming more and more unpopular because of the inflation brought on by the war against England. Furthermore, Godoy's confiscation of clerical property had alienated the Church, and the high nobility resented being governed by a man of humble background. Escoiquiz was able to raise a conspiracy against him and organize it around the figure of Ferdinand. When Maria Antonieta died in May 1806, Godoy was accused by rumor of having poisoned her.
In 1807 Godoy told Charles that his son was plotting against him, and Ferdinand was placed under house arrest. Fearing for his life, he wrote his father: "I have done wrong; I have sinned against you both as King and as Father; but I have repented, and I now offer Your Majesty the most humble obedience." Ferdinand was freed and Escoiquiz was exiled to Toledo, but the plotting against Godoy continued.
By this time Napoleon had decided to unseat the Spanish Bourbons, and early in 1808 French troops began to occupy the main cities of Spain. Godoy and the royal family went to Aranjuez, planning to escape from Napoleon's clutches by going to the New World. Ferdinand, however, believed that the French troops were in Spain to support him, and on March 17 he overthrew Godoy at Aranjuez with the help of the aristocracy and a well-organized riot. Godoy was imprisoned, and the frightened Charles abdicated in favor of his son.
Abdication and Captivity
On March 24 Ferdinand made his triumphal entry into Madrid, which had been occupied on the previous day by a large French force commanded by Gen. Murat. A few days later he received an invitation from Napoleon to meet with him at Bayonne. Already the French emperor had offered the throne of Spain to his brother Joseph, and Joseph had accepted it.
Ferdinand still believed that Napoleon was his friend, and in spite of the warnings of Escoiquiz and others he traveled to Bayonne, where he was shocked by Napoleon's demand that he abdicate. When he refused, the French brought Charles, Maria Luisa, and Godoy to Bayonne in order to increase the pressure on him. Finally, on May 2, when the people of Madrid rose against the French army of occupation, Napoleon became furious and threatened Ferdinand with death. The frightened King quickly abdicated in favor of Charles, who then abdicated in favor of Napoleon. A few months later Napoleon's younger brother entered Spain as Joseph I.
But the Spanish people refused to accept Joseph as their king and were joined in their resistance against the French by the armies of the Duke of Wellington. By 1813 the French position in Spain had become untenable, and Napoleon decided to withdraw his troops. Hoping that Ferdinand would honor his promise to keep Spain neutral, Napoleon allowed him to return to Spain in March 1814.
Ferdinand and the Liberals
During the war against the French a group of liberal Spaniards had written the Constitution of 1812, which placed severe limitations on the power of the monarchy. Ferdinand had no intention of accepting this document, and after making sure that the army would support him, he issued a decree on May 4 restoring royal absolutism and suspending the Constitution of 1812. A week later he entered Madrid.
Ferdinand now launched a systematic persecution of those who had collaborated with the French and of those who had dreamed of a constitutional monarchy. He also began to organize an army to send against the rebellious American colonies that had taken advantage of the French occupation of Spain to launch their struggle for independence.
The persecuted liberals began to establish contacts within the army, where service in America was very unpopular. In early 1820 Col. Rafael Riego declared himself for the Constitution of 1812. All over Spain army garrisons either joined the revolt or remained neutral. The frightened Ferdinand gave in and in March took the oath to the constitution.
The liberals, however, proved unable to set up a viable government. In 1822 a royalist revolt broke out in favor of the "imprisoned" Ferdinand, and in the spring of 1823 a royalist army from France was sent to restore Ferdinand to the throne. Everywhere the French were received with enthusiasm. The liberals fled to Seville and then to Cadiz, taking Ferdinand with them. In August they gave up and freed Ferdinand, who had promised a general amnesty.
Ferdinand did not keep his promise, and as in 1814, many liberals found themselves either in prison or in exile. As the years passed, however, Ferdinand's rule became less harsh, and gradually the more moderate liberals were allowed back into the country. This angered the more conservative groups in Spain, who now turned to Ferdinand's brother, the pious and reactionary Don Carlos, for inspiration and leadership.
After the death of his first wife in 1806, Ferdinand had married twice. His third wife died in May 1829, and Ferdinand still had not produced an heir. On Dec. 12, 1829, he married his fourth wife, the beautiful and capable Maria Cristina of Naples, who in October 1830 bore him an heir, the future Isabella II.
In 1713 Philip V had introduced into Spain the so-called Salic Law, which prevented females from succeeding to the throne of Spain. Don Carlos claimed that he would be the legitimate king of Spain if his brother Ferdinand died without a male heir. In 1830 Ferdinand annulled the Salic Law, but Don Carlos still refused to give up his claims. Between 1830 and 1833, therefore, Ferdinand turned more and more to the liberals who, afraid of the reactionary Don Carlos, were solidly behind the princess Isabella. By early 1833 the government of Spain was in the hands of the liberals, the men who had been so harshly persecuted by Ferdinand in the past.
After the summer of 1832 Ferdinand's health began to fail, and he died on Sept. 29, 1833. The Queen would not allow his body to be touched for 48 hours. It lay in state in the throne room of the Palacio Real, where it was seen by that conscientious traveler Richard Ford, who claimed that the face, hideous enough in life, was "now purple, like a ripe fig." Five days after his death, the King was buried among the other kings of Spain in the vault of the Escorial. Ferdinand VII has been praised by conservative Spanish historians as a capable and popular king who struggled to preserve the traditional Spanish way of life. But he has also been attacked by liberal historians as a coward and bloody ogre who tried to sweep back the tide of progress.
Further Reading on Ferdinand VII
There is no biography of Ferdinand VII available in English. Sir Charles Petrie, The Spanish Royal House (1958), is useful. For a scholarly account of the politics and economics of Spain during Ferdinand's reign see Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808-1939 (1966).