In his article “Spain’s Crusade” of some years ago, Gary Potter briefly mentioned the Carlists “…without whose arms and sacrifices victory could well have eluded the Catholic, national side of the conflict. It would be desirable to speak of them not simply on account of their importance in the Crusade but because, except for the heroes of the Vendee in the 1790’s and the Cristeros in Mexico in the 1920’s and 30’s, no body of Catholics has struggled and fought against the Revolution, on the battlefield and off, more valiantly then they. Moreover, they still exist. The Carlists . . . remain a force in Spain and even among men in other lands.”
Just who are these “Carlists” (Carlistas in Spanish), what did they do and, more importantly, what are they doing today? To answer these questions in order, we must return the Spain of the early 1800’s. All of Europe had been caught up in Revolutionary fervor as a result of the debacle in France beginning in 1789. By the time Napoleon usurped the reigns of government in that country with the intent to dominate Europe as emperor, even isolated Spain came to be caught in the upheaval. By this time, Spain’s Golden Age was long past: she was beginning to lose her grip on her American possessions; her military power had been eclipsed; and the militant and cohesive Catholicism that had led to the expulsion of the last of the Muslims from the homeland in 1492 had weakened considerably. Moreover, her treasury was seriously depleted.
The pivotal character in Spanish history of this time is King Ferdinand VII, son of the weak Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. Unfortunately, Ferdinand was morose and sickly, ignored by his parents, tutored by a man who instilled in him a deep hatred for his mother’s lover, Godoy, who was de facto ruler of Spain. He seems to have been a very disturbed youth who took pleasure in all kinds of acts of cruelty. His own mother-in-law referred to him as “an absolute blockhead.” As one might surmise from this brief description of Ferdinand, when it came time for him to assume the throne, he was totally unprepared.
When Ferdinand’s father, Charles IV, was unseated by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain (the Peninsular War) in 1808, Ferdinand foolishly believed that it was the emperor’s intent to put him on the throne. He agreed to meet with Napoleon at Bayonne, where the French emperor demanded his abdication. Napoleon had already promised the Spanish throne to his brother Joseph. As disunited as the Spanish people were in their loyalties to various members of the royal family, they were not about to accept a French usurper, particularly one named Bonaparte. So, in order to keep the peace in Spain, Napoleon allowed Ferdinand to return to Madrid in 1814 as king. Instead of remaining neutral, as he had promised Napoleon, and adhering to the liberal Constitution of 1812, Ferdinand instituted absolute monarchy with a vengeance. Because of his limited intelligence and abilities, this meant rule by whim. For a time, things went back and forth, with Ferdinand sometimes appeasing the liberals, sometimes turning on them in cruelty.
The Spanish conservative element, always strong, always Catholic, grew weary of Ferdinand’s whimsical ways and began to look to his pious younger brother Don Carlos to assume the throne. Because none of Ferdinand’s four marriages had produced a son, and his only heir was a daughter, Isabella, by his fourth wife, Maria Christina of Naples, these conservatives claimed Carlos the legitimate heir. By Spanish law since 1713, no female could inherit the Spanish throne. Ferdinand’s clever wife convinced him to annul the Salic Law (the law forbidding the throne passing to a female), thus making Isabella the monarch at her father’s death. The absolute monarch Ferdinand began to turn to the liberals for support knowing that they feared and detested Don Carlos’ traditional (liberals would say “reactionary”) view of the Spanish monarchy. Those who followed Carlos became known as the Carlistas, and they have played a part in Spanish politics, culture, and society since 1833.
A Counterrevolutionary Movement
We must understand at the outset that Carlism was and always has been a counterrrevolutionary movement. During the height of its power, Spain’s monarchy and Catholicism were synonymous — were not Ferdinand and Isabella called “los Reyes Católicos” (the Catholic Kings)? Since much of Spain’s elite and common folk alike remained attached to their ancient religion, the so-called Enlightenment and its tenets seriously “kicked against the goad” of their traditions. They were horrified at the aims of the liberal element, influenced by Freemasonry, who wanted to do away with the influence of the Church both in government and in everyday Spanish life. This went against the Ancien Régime that for so long held sway in the peninsula and made Spain always a staunch supporter of Church and Crown.
It all came down to this question: Is authority to govern the nation something derived from God, or something derived from man? The liberals answered this question one way, the Carlists, another.
The Carlist Wars
Unfortunately, the disagreements between the liberals and the traditionalists, who briefly united against France in the Peninsular War, surfaced violently in 1833, at the time of the First Carlist War, until 1876, which saw the end of the Third Carlist War. Brutality was common on both sides, especially during the First War. These conflicts were characterized, first, by guerrilla activity all across Spain, then, by the setting up of territorial bases and, finally, by state structures being established on both sides with conventional warfare ensuing.
The intent of the liberals was to bring the Revolution to Spain, thus ending the Catholic monarchy; the aim of the Carlistas was to return Spain to its traditional roots — God, fatherland, local rule (sometimes translated “charters”), and king. While the Carlists were never able to capture the throne, eventually they established themselves in certain strongholds all over Spain, a phenomenon that continues until today. Navarra, Rioja, areas of the Basque Provinces, parts of Catalonia, and Valencia became staunchly Carlist in outlook.
The Four Principles Explained
At the heart of the Carlismo platform from the beginning were the four basic underpinnings of Spanish political philosophy: Dios (God) in the person of Creator, Lord and Legislator under the Catholic conception of Christ the King, and the earthly power of the Roman Catholic Church, founded by Our Lord Himself. Patria (fatherland) is the historical and geographical entity of Spain — not a nationalist outlook, but one that takes into consideration its unity without uniformity. This outlook can be likened to a confederacy rather than a tightly ruled and uniform nation, admitting of the entity of Spain while emphasizing the important regional differences of the various parts of the country. Fueros (charters or home rule) employs the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. The individual is first; then the family; then the small community or town; then the region; and then the patria. Subsidiarity stresses the importance of local and social sovereignty as opposed to the modern idea of nationhood in which rule is imposed from the top down. Finally, the fourth principle, Rey — the King — not absolute, whimsical rule on the part of the monarch, but guidance with assistance from advisors on certain matters of national importance. In fact, the king’s power is very limited, as it was in medieval monarchies, whose authority was “checked” and “balanced” by the natural law, the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church, the rights of the aristocracy, and the traditions of the nation. Thus, while the Carlists are certainly monarchists, the El Rey comes last in the hierarchy of principles.
It is clear that the four principles are thoroughly Catholic, and when properly applied, allow for a cohesive and well-functioning Catholic state.
The Liberals Make Inroads
Although the majority of Spaniards were not liberals, the Carlists were never decisive in any of the wars that bear their name. Liberal inroads continued apace, and, by the time Isabella II became of age to rule in 1843, the very presence of the Church in the life of Spain was drastically reduced. Religious orders had been banned; more than fifteen hundred monasteries had been closed and their properties sold to pay down the national debt; numbers of clergy were severely limited by law, and those few remaining became government employees, much as in France after the Revolution; there were violent outbursts of anticlericalism. The institutional Church would never again officially hold the lofty position of the past. However, it still remained a strong influence in the life and society of Spaniards, and would always retain its importance from an historical point of view.
To her credit, Isabella’s reign saw the Church make a modest recovery that continued until the 1930’s, although it assumed a more modest role than in the past. The Church and the Carlists themselves always remained an influential force in Spanish life.
Time Between the Wars
Isabella II managed to make all factions unhappy, and, in 1868, after twenty-five years on the throne, she was overthrown by a progressivist revolution, once again putting Spain under liberal forces. The outspoken support of Pope Pius IX for the Carlist cause after this event led many of the conservatives who had supported Isabella into the Carlist camp, and Carlismo, as an official political movement, reached its height at this time, garnering ninety members in the Parliament by 1871. Carlos VII was claimant to the throne in these years. It seems that the primary weakness of the Carlists during the long years leading up to World War I and after, until the beginning of the terrible Civil War in the 1930’s, was factionalism. The numbers of claimants to the throne through the various royal lines during those decades make one’s head spin. All had their followers, but, although they basically agreed on the four traditional principles, there never seemed to be agreement on who was the legitimate claimant.
Nevertheless, Carlismo continued to keep Spain’s Catholic foundation in the public eye. During the 1920’s Carlists helped to found the Sindicatos Libres (Catholic Labor Unions). In addition, the Carlists were always successful in electing representatives to the local and provincial ruling bodies — the Fueros. This is where their influence continued and flourished — at the local level in the more conservative parts of the country — never officially at the national level.
An interesting side note: Many Carlistas were exiled from Spain during the 1850’s and 1860’s, making their way into France where they found sympathy with the descendants of the Vendeeans. Some of these idealistic fighting men went to America to join the Confederate side during our own country’s tragic War Between the States. They fought bravely with several states’ units, notably the Louisiana Tigers, the Tennessee Army, and the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate General Ambrose P. Hill called them “my rough, tattered and brave lions of Providence.” The Carlista principles of fueros and patria gave them common ground with the Southern cause. As Catholics, slavery (it should be needless to say) was repulsive to them. However, they had much more in common with the ideals of the Confederacy than with the industrial, Puritan North.
The Second Republic and the Civil War
In 1931, with the establishment of the Second Republic, liberalism seemed to be the future of Spain. After elections put the Republic in power, King Alfonso XIII fled the country. The new Constitution effectively disestablished the Church, allowed divorce and freedom of association, granted the vote to women and stripped the nobility of its status. In 1934, conservative groups won the elections, setting off protests by socialists and anarchists in Asturias Province. These uprisings became very violent and were just as violently put down by a young army general named Francisco Franco. Things heated up during the next two years between the left wing (Popular Front or Republicans, also called Loyalists) and the right wing (the National Front), with the Carlistas joining forces with Franco’s Falangist Party. Assassinations, bombings and battles escalated into full-blown civil war when Franco led his troops from Spanish Morocco into mainland Spain to make war on the liberal government in Madrid.
As Mr. Potter’s article on the Spanish Crusade clearly informs us, the Spanish Civil War was a tragic event that devastated all of Spain; it was largely considered by historians as a “dress rehearsal” for World War II. Liberals have depicted it as the legitimately elected “Republican” government resisting the “fascist” forces of Franco. In reality, it was the traditional, conservative and Catholic army under Franco fighting against the socialist, communist, and anarchist forces that had infected Spain since the early days of the European revolutions.
Franco was not a Carlist, although he certainly did agree with their thinking on Catholicism and its importance in Spain. The general gladly accepted their support during the War. In fact, the Carlist militia, the Requetés, in their jaunty red berets and with the badge of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sewn over their own hearts on their uniforms, fought alongside Falangist forces. Politically, Franco supported a stronger central government than the Carlist tradition allowed for.
At the end of the War, several Carlistas assumed positions inside Franco’s regime, but were promptly expelled from the party (by this time, referred to as the Traditionalist Carlist Communion). It is interesting that when Franco assumed power, he recognized officially the two claimants to the throne, probably because he needed the political support of their respective followers. Juan Carlos, the current reigning King of Spain, was Franco’s chosen successor, and he is, in fact, the legitimate heir. Sadly for Spain, he has capitulated to the Revolution, as witnessed, among other things, by his recently signing into law an abominable bill expanding access to abortion in Spain.
In our time, the Comunión Tradicionalista Carlista (the CTC, Traditionalist Carlist Communion) is still a very active political party. In fact, it calls itself the oldest political party of Spain. Recently, on May 4 and 5, the Eleventh Congress was held in Cerro de los Ángeles. According to their website (www.carlistas.es/), their principal activities are formation of their members, formation of youth, propaganda, electoral action, and social and political action. They vigorously promote these areas of educating the Spanish populace: the evils of abortion, of unrestrained capitalism, of socialism. They also advocate keeping Spain free of foreign interests. They are against centralization (as their platform on Fueros indicates.) They have taken on a defensive character — “Defender para renovar” is their cry — “To defend in order to renew.” And, of course, above all else, they are unabashedly Catholic and monarchist.
Today, in addition to their political organization and activity, the Carlists observe four great festival days — January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany; March 10, the Martyrs to Tradition Day; November 4, Feast of Saint Charles Borromeo, the Legitimate Dynasty Day; and December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the feast day of Carlista youth.
If you know a bit of Spanish, you will find their website very interesting. Even if you do not, you can see their beautiful battle banner and the very colorful attire worn by Carlistas through the years and down to our own day. Why, you can even buy one of those spiffy red berets! There is also an English explanation of the four principles.
Carlistas are the remaining militant Catholic political party in Spain. Although small in numbers, they are very vocal and very active. One hopes and prays that their influence will be greater than their numbers. Viva Cristo Rey! Viva España Católica!