A Brief, Intriguing History of the Spanish Royal Family
You’re probably familiar with the British monarchy. But, did you know that the Spanish royal family is a European monarchy with a fascinating history, too?
The monarchy of Spain is called “The Crown” in the Spanish constitution, and it is the highest office in the land. Keep reading to learn more about the long and sordid history of the Spanish royal family!
Spanish Royal Family History: Marriage of the Catholic Monarchs
In 1469, Principe Fernando (Prince Ferdinand) of Aragon married Princesa Isabela (Princess Isabella) of Castile. They were the heirs to the thrones of the two biggest kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. Thus, this marriage laid the groundwork for modern Spain (as well as the Spanish royal family).
However, the story is a bit more complicated than that. When Isabella’s half-brother (Henry IV of Castile) died in 1474, a debate over who should succeed the throne occurred. Henry IV’s daughter, Joanna, had married the king of Portugal, and she claimed that she was the rightful heir.
Isabella claimed that Joanna was the illegitimate daughter of a duke and therefore not eligible to inherit anything. A bloody battle ensued that ended with Queen Isabella victorious. She then conquered Granada in January 1492 and annexed it to her kingdom.
Announcing that Jews and Muslims had to convert to the Roman Catholic Church or leave Spain, Queen Isabella launched the Spanish Inquisition in an effort to make sure that the new Catholics had quit observing their former religions. Of course, 1492 is also notorious for being the year that the Spanish monarchy sent Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic.
The Spanish Empire in the Americas
The brutal empire would eventually flood Spain with stolen New World silver and help make the new country a major global power. Isabella died well before that, in 1504, leaving Castile to her daughter, Joanna of Castile.
However, Isabella’s husband was still alive. Ferdinand had grown fond of being King, and didn’t want to give up the position. He remained “regent” until his death in 1516, at last leaving Joanna as sole ruler of Spain.
Joanna’s son, Charles, had been born in Belgium and raised there by his aunt in the House of Habsburg. After his grandfather Ferdinand’s death, Charles set sail for Spain. Upon arrival, he met with his mother, declared her to be mentally ill and locked her in a convent where she spent the rest of her life.
Spanish Royal Family History: Habsburg Monarchy
Once reigning in Spain as King Carlos I, he proceeded to bribe some prominent Germans and had himself elected Holy Roman Emperor. This new role, as Charles V, gave him power over a vast portion of central Europe. At the same time, his conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro gave him a massive and rich empire in the Americas.
Nevertheless, Charles viewed his reign as a failure. The Indians in his newly-won empire in the Americas were being enslaved and slaughtered by the conquistadors. Meanwhile in Europe, Martin Luther decisively split the Christian church into Protestant and Catholic factions. Hungary fell to the Ottoman Turks. Charles V saw it all as his fault since it happened during his reign.
Philip of the Philippines
In old age and sickness, Charles V decided to abdicate. He made his brother Holy Roman Emperor and gave Spain, southern Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Americas to his son Philip. Philip took the throne of Spain as Philip II (Felipe II).
(Side note: This is the “Philip” for whom the Philippines were named, having been conquered by the Spanish during his reign. See: The Spanish-Speaking History of The Philippines for more war-torn details.)
Philip’s wife was Queen Mary I of England. However, by now his family’s pattern of collecting kingdoms had become clear, and England had no desire to be absorbed into Spain. Hence, Parliament declared Philip to be “King IN England” rather than “King OF England.” This meant that when Mary died, the English throne didn’t go to her husband, but instead passed to her sister, Elizabeth.
Philip tried to propose to Elizabeth, but the icy “Virgin Queen” had no interest in him. This initiated a rivalry between England and Spain that ended with the Spanish Armada being crushed by the English. In the meantime, Philip II had himself crowned King of Portugal.
More Felipes and a Carlos
When Philip II died, his domains passed to his son Philip III, who in turn passed them to his son Philip IV. Philip IV managed to lose both Portugal and Holland to revolutionaries before passing the rest of his domains on to his son, Carlos II.
Unfortunately, Carlos II was handicapped both mentally and physically and died without an heir. He declared in his will that his nearest male relative, the 16-year old French prince Philippe d’Anjou, would succeed him as King of Spain.
Spanish Royal Family History: War of the Spanish Succession
The young French prince becoming king of Spain was problematic. Philippe d’Anjou was the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, making it likely that the thrones of France and Spain would unite. Fears that such a union would be too powerful led many of Europe’s powers to form an alliance to stop Philippe from taking the Spanish throne.
The result was the 13-year-long War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually, Philippe was crowned Philip V of Spain—but only upon meeting certain conditions. He gave Belgium and southern Italy to Austria and promised that the thrones of France and Spain could never be united.
Just 11 years later, he handed the throne to his son, Louis, who died of smallpox after a reign of only seven months. Philip V decided to return, and he reigned until his death in 1746.
Philip was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand VI. When Ferdinand’s wife died, he sunk into a deep depression and died soon after. The throne passed to his brother, Charles, who had re-conquered southern Italy and was ruling as king there.
Spanish Royal Family History: The Napoleonic Era
Charles returned to Spain as King Carlos III and, after his death, was succeeded by his second son, Carlos IV. After a reign that included economic depression and popular revolt, he handed the throne to his son Ferdinand VII in 1808.
The new king wanted Spain to ally with the British against Napoleon Bonaparte. So, Napoleon’s armies promptly marched in and captured Ferdinand VII, locking him up for six years. Napoleon declared that his brother Joseph was now King Jose I of Spain. Not surprisingly, the people of Spain rejected this and revolted against the French.
The rebel leaders declared Spain a constitutional monarchy with the imprisoned Ferdinand VII as its king. Finally, with British help, Spain regained independence. Joseph Bonaparte fled to the U.S., and Ferdinand VII reclaimed his throne.
In September 1873, the First Spanish Republic was founded. However, a coup d’état quickly restored the monarchy the following year.
The “Reign” of Franco
In 1931, elections led to victories for candidates favoring an end to the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. The king at the time, Alfonso XIII, went into exile but did not abdicate. The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and ended in 1939 with the victory of General Francisco Franco and his coalition of Nationalists.
After 16 years without monarchy or kingdom, in 1947, Franco made Spain a kingdom again. The fascist dictator ruled the nation as “Head of state of the Kingdom of Spain through the Law of Succession,” until his death in 1975.
Modern Spanish Royal Family History
Spain’s King Juan Carlos ascended the throne in 1975, two days after Franco’s death. His wife, Queen Sofia, was born a Greek princess. Married in 1962, they had two daughters and a son.
In 2014, King Juan Carlos abdicated the throne in the face of public repercussions of a corruption investigation. His son became King Felipe VI on June 19, 2014. The heir to the throne is Felipe’s eldest child, Princess Leonor. Despite the abdication, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia retained the titles of king and queen. In 2020, amid scandal, Juan Carlos went into exile in the Dominican Republic.
Spanish Royal Family Vocabulary
Now that you know all about the history of the Spanish monarchy, here are some related vocabulary words to learn.
la realeza – royalty, royal family
la familia real – the royal family
el rey – king
la reina – the queen
la corona – crown
el jefe/la jefa del estado – head of state
el reino, el imperio – kingdom
el trono – throne
el palacio – palace
la autoridad – authority
la princesa – princess
el príncipe – prince
la duquesa – duchess
el duque – duke
los súbditos – subjects (ruled over)
el monarquismo – monarchism
la monocracia – monocracy (rule of government by one person)
reinar – to reign
abdicar – to abdicate
instaurar – to establish
imperar, gobernar – to rule
decretar, ordenar – to decree
anticuado/a – outdated
real – royal
regio – regal
elegante – elegant
rico/a – rich
sofisticado/a – sophisticated, fancy
Give Yourself the Royal Treatment
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