What is Legitimism?

“Legitimism” is a very curious word that pops up from time in history. It has to deal with the questions fought — politically or militarily — in many countries over the past few centuries. Considering that it deals with the issue of legitimacy — legitimate rule — it might actually have some interest for Americans, given our recent presidential election.

Legitimism is a fairly recent phenomenon. On the surface, it would appear to mean nothing more than loyalty to a particular royal line, even after its deposition by presumed usurpers. But there is more to it than that. Certainly, before the 16th century there had been succession disputes, which pitted adherents of one branch of a royal family against another — most famous of these were the Hundred Years War between the closely related English and French ruling lines, and the War of the Roses pitting the former’s York and Lancaster branches against one another. But despite the strange paradoxes of those conflicts — Richard III’s ultimate recognition of Henry VI’s sanctity, and the French opposition to the latter being led by St. Joan of Arc — the combatants in these conflicts had identical views regarding Church and State, the role of the Monarch, and various other issues that would, in addition to genealogical issues, animate the future Legitimists.

Closer to the Legitimist vision were the various groups in different European countries that arose to combat the Protestant revolt — the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Risings in the West and North of England, similar risings in Scandinavia, the Catholic Leagues in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland and the like. Their actions were not only in defence of the Catholic religion per se, but the entire social order that went with it — often against the Sovereigns who were at the head of the nation, but with no idea of replacing them and theirs with some other clan.

All of these conflicts — the God-given hereditary right of a particular family to the rule of a given country, the religious requirements of that family, and their obligation to uphold the traditional rights, privileges, and obligations of all their subjects — probably first came together during what was once called the English Civil War. Now more accurately and poetically described as “The Wars of the Three Kingdoms,” it pitted the Cavaliers of Charles I against Cromwell’s Roundheads. While none of his opponents questioned Charles’ heirship to his Crown, they did dispute his right to rule over a number of issues that would animate future Legitimists. Charles stood for what he conceived to be the ancient constitution of the Church of England: maintenance of Bishops and eventual reunion with Rome. Against the centralizing desires of Cromwell, the King wanted to maintain the traditional governance of Ireland, Scotland, and England, and the autonomous institutions of the North and West of England. Further, he wished to prevent the enclosures, which were disrupting the lives of farmers across the country. As a result, the bulk of the Royalists were Catholics and High Anglicans from the Celtic Fringe and the North and West of England. Moreover, if they were defeated militarily, they certainly had the better of it in the literary and theological spheres, as shown by the Cavalier poets and the Caroline divines.

But the classic Legitimist mode was yet to be created; that would occur with the overthrow of Charles’ son, James VII (of Scotland) and II (of England) in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. His and his descendants’ supporters, dubbed “Jacobites’ (after Jacobus, the Latin for James), established what has been the Legitimist standard ever since. For the Jacobites it was not simply the case that the Stuarts had a divinely ordained right to the throne as against the Orange and then Hanoverian usurpers. The Stuarts also stood up for religious traditionalism (Catholic and High Anglican), local liberties (in this case, opposition to the Union of English and Scots — and later Irish — parliaments and governments), and maintenance of local ways of life. As with Charles I’s Cavalier supporters, the Jacobites tended to come from the Celtic Fringe and the North and West of England.

The transplanting of Britain across the sea was affected by these ongoing dynastic struggles: the last battle of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms took place in Maryland, and James II’s overthrow saw the takeover of Maryland by the Protestants and the collapse of the Dominion of New England. The defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1746 saw flocks of pro-Stuart Scots settle in upstate New York and backcountry North Carolina. As tensions rose in the Thirteen Colonies during the countdown to the revolution, most Loyalist and rebel controversialists alike tried to justify themselves in terms of the 1688 Settlement. But as Eric Nelson shows in The Royalist Revolution, a significant number of anti-government pamphleteers attempted to show that the King alone had the right to make laws for his American colonies, as the Stuart Kings had authorised their settlement without reference to Parliament. But most of the actual Jacobites here rallied to the King’s standard — with similar results to Culloden.

The French allies of the rebels in that revolution were bankrupted by their intervention — which had its effect in France, when the government had neither cash nor credit with which to deal with the Great Hunger of 1788. The result crisis led in the end to the calling of the Estates General and the French Revolution. As with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the King and his supporters battled unsuccessfully for the old order in Church and State against bloodthirsty rebels. Once more, the King’s men were concentrated outside the centre of the realm — Celtic Brittany, Normandy, and the Vendee in the West; and Lyon, the Midi, and Provence in the South. Here too, there was a restoration, with Louis XVIII playing the role of Charles II and Charles X that of James II. With Charles deposed in 1830 and replaced by his cousin, Louis Philippe, we see the origin of the word “Legitimism” as a party name. Those who supported the usurper were called “Orleanists,” after the branch of the Bourbons from which he had sprung. “Legitimist” was used to describe the supporters of the exiled Charles X and his grandson, Henry V.

For the most part, the Legitimists believed that the Restoration had not gone far enough; amongst other things, they believed that it had failed to undo the centralisation imposed by the revolutionaries, restore the ancient provinces with their rights, or return the Church entirely to its proper place at the head of society. The Orleanists, of course, held the opposite of all of these things — as with the Stuarts and the Hanoverians, the dynastic dispute would be bound up with an ideological one. As the Industrial Revolution did its work in France and across Europe, the sympathies of Henry and his supporters were with the workers, while those of the Orleanists were committed to the wealthy factory owners.

Four years before Charles X was driven from his throne in 1830, a similar process was underway in Portugal. When John VI of Portugal died, his older — and more Liberal — son, Pedro, had been Emperor of Brazil since 1822. He sent his daughter — called Maria II — to reign, although she was a child. His younger brother, Miguel, now claimed the throne for himself, saying that Pedro had forfeited the throne for himself and his descendants by becoming Emperor of Brazil. But as with the British Isles and France, there was a lot more involved than the dynastic issue. Miguel’s supporters wanted a traditional Monarchy, with the Church as the dominant social factor, local liberties against a centralising state, and so forth. Here also, peripheral areas were the strongholds of Miguelist strength — especially Portugal’s extreme north and south. However, the liberals led by a returned Pedro were eventually victorious in 1834, dispossessed the religious orders, and settled Pedro and his descendants on a liberalized throne that would last until 1910.

The year prior to Pedro’s victory in Portugal saw the death of Fernando VII of Spain. He had attempted to alter the law of succession of the Bourbons of Spain, so that his daughter Isabella would inherit the throne, rather than his brother, Carlos. The predictable result was another civil war, pitting the Carlists — as Carlos V’s supporters were called — against the liberal supporters of Isabel II. The Carlist beliefs could be summed up in four words: Dios, Patria, Fueros, Rey — “God, Country, Provincial Rights, King.” Once again, we see defended the traditional role of the Church, the old constitution of the country, local liberties, and an affective Monarch. In opposition, the triumphant liberals secularised all monastic properties.

In 1831, Charles Felix, last male member of the House of Savoy, Kings of Sardinia, died. He was succeeded by his much-distrusted distant cousin, Charles Albert. Liberally inclined (as witnessed by his abandoning of the Maundy Thursday Foot-Washing ceremony), the new King schemed to depose all his brother Monarchs on the Italian peninsula — including the Pope — and establish a unified and centralised liberal Monarchy. Because of his role in the 1848 rebellions, he was deposed and replaced by his son, Victor Emmanuel II. Assisted by his wily Prime Minister, Count Cavour, over the next eleven years, through a combination of warfare and diplomacy Victor Emmanuel would succeed in driving the Austrian Emperor from his Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, other branches of the Habsburgs from Tuscany and Modena, the Bourbons from Parma and the Two Sicilies, and Bl. Pope Pius IX from the Papal States (he withdrew into what is now the Vatican). When the smoke had cleared in 1870, Italy was united, centralised, and anticlerical. But the adherents of the deposed rulers were called Legitimists; for another decade, the supporters of the exiled Neapolitan Bourbons carried on guerilla warfare. Starting in 1860, thousands of young men came to fight for the Pope in the Pontifical Zouaves, which became a sort of Legitimist Foreign Legion. After the final defeat in Rome, the Zouaves returned to their various homelands, spurring devotion to the Sacred Heart and Catholic Action wherever they had come from. One other result of the Risorgimento was the emigration of millions of Italians to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and elsewhere, in order to avoid both the heavy taxation and the conscription the new regime favoured.

The 1860s also saw our Second Civil War. The merits or otherwise of the two sides aside, Europeans tended to view the conflict in terms of their own experience. For many Liberals, the Union was seen as the force of light, seeking to liberate the enslaved. But to many Legitimists, the Confederates seemed to be fighting for the same cause of local liberties that they were in their own countries. Thus it was that foreign volunteers to the two armies often (although not always) divided into ideological streams.

When the American war had ended, the third great centralising struggle began. The 1848 revolutions in Germany had lead to the establishment of an All-German Parliament in Frankfurt, which in turn was divided into factions. Some wished for a loosely united Reich, headed by the Emperor of Austria, which would include some or all of his domains; others wanted a smaller, non-Austrian centralised nation, with the King of Prussia at the head. But while this latter was favoured by the majority, it foundered on the Legitimism of the then Prussian King, Frederick William IV, who held that as they had been in the Holy Roman Empire, the role belonged to the Habsburgs. The parliament dissolved in 1850. A decade later, however, Frederick William was dead. His younger brother, the new King William I, followed his chancellor Bismarck, who led him and Prussia into a series of wars which resulted in expelling the Habsburgs from Germany, annexing several independent principalities and a Kingdom (Hanover), and creating a new united German Empire in 1871. Its non-Prussian states were cowed, although their Sovereigns remained nominally at the helm. Interesting enough, it was Ludwig von Windhorst, a leading proponent of the exiled House of Hanover in the new German Reichstag, who was instrumental in founding the Catholic Centre Party. Also worthy of note is that it was to Austria that the exiled French, Spanish Carlist, Parmesan, and Neapolitan Bourbons, the Miguelist Braganzas, and the dispossessed Italian and German princes made their way. In very real sense, Austria became Legitimism’s last refuge.

Two years after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Henry V, called the Count of Chambord, was presented with the chance to regain his throne. In the end he refused to accept it, because the government insisted on the retention of the tricolour — the banner of the revolution, accepted by Louis Philippe — as the French flag. On the surface, his insistence on returning to the white flag of the Bourbon Monarchy seemed like pointless intransigence. But in reality, the flag question was merely symbolic. Henry did not want to be a liberal Monarch as his cousin had been — superior only in his bloodline. When he died childless in 1883, he had reconciled with his Orleans cousin, and most of his followers recognised the Duke of Orleans as Philippe VII. But the Carlist heir claimed the throne as a senior descendant of Louis XIV and a small minority of French Royalists — the Blancs d’Espagne — accepted them. For the remainder, though, the indignity of accepting an Orleans as “their” claimant was sweetened by his taking on most of Henry’s programme regarding the place of the Church in public life, revival of the historic provinces, regard for the plight of industrial workers, and the like. These ideas were codified by such thinkers as Rene de la Tour du Pin and Charles Maurras.

Ironically, the late 19th century saw a brief reflowering of Legitimism in the country that not only first saw the birth of liberal Monarchy, but under Queen Victoria was its greatest exemplar: the British Empire. As it happened, a noble convert to Catholicism, Bertram Ashburnham, 5th Earl of Ashburnham, became the chief Carlist agent in his native Britain, gathering funds and recruits for the cause. Inspired by his experiences with the Spanish, he sought to do something similar for his own country. So, in 1886, he cofounded the Order of the White Rose, which began the Neo-Jacobite Revival. To it and its later offshoots such as the Legitimist Jacobite League of Great Britain and Ireland flocked a great many artists and writers (including Catholic converts and Anglo-Catholics) on the one hand, and Irish, Scots, Welsh, and Cornish nationalists on the other. At the same time (and with the involvement of many of the Anglicans who were involved with Neo-Jacobitism) there arose two groups concerned with reviving the cultus of Charles I in the Church of England: the Society of King Charles the Martyr and the Royal Martyr Church Union. The Order of the White Rose cast its net as far as the United States, where noted architect Ralph Adams Cram and socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner enthusiastically joined both the OWR and the SKCM (the latter’s palatial home, now the museum that bears her name, was used by both for meetings). While neither official governmental disfavour nor disapproval by many Catholic authorities (despite the Neo-Jacobitism of such clerics as Fr. Adrian Fortescue) dampened their enthusiasm, there was one difficulty which came to a head in 1914. The Stuart claims had by this time descended upon Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria, who was an officer in the German Army.

Three years before the First World War began, the second in line to the Austro-Hungarian thrones, Bl. Charles of Austria, had married S.G. Zita of Bourbon-Parma. Closely related as she was to Henry V and Carlist claimants, her father was the Sardinian-deposed Duke of Parma, while her mother was the daughter of Portugal’s Prince Miguel of Braganza. In a word, if the groom epitomised the Legitimism of Central Europe, the bride summed up all that of the West. As we know Bl. Charles ascended the throne in 1916 and tried unsuccessfully to end the war and federalise the Empire. Sent off into Swiss exile, the Imperial couple tried twice unsuccessfully to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921, and encountered stiff resistance from Admiral Horthy, the Regent. From that time on, those Hungarians who favoured the return of the Habsburgs were called Legitimists.

In the meantime, the liberal line of the Kings of Portugal had been overthrown in 1910. Since Manuel II had no heirs, he reconciled with the Miguelist branch of the family. At the same time, a group of Portuguese writers and intellectuals, influenced both by Maurras’ work in France and the traditions of Miguelismo originated a traditionalist Catholic Monarchist school of thought they dubbed Integralismo Lusitano. Now, Integralism, as our friends at Wikipedia inform us, “is the principle that the Catholic faith should be the basis of public law and public policy within civil society, wherever the preponderance of Catholics within that society makes this possible.” In recent years, Integralism in general has undergone an upsurge in Catholic circles. While not all Integralists were or are Legitimists, the vast majority of Legitimists were or are Integralists — and this was particularly true of the Portuguese.

The Carlists in Spain had fought and lost three civil wars over the course of the 19th century, and waged political struggle afterwards. In 1936, two things happened: the last of their heirs died, and appointed Prince Xavier of Bourbon Parma (brother of Empress Zita) as his regent; and the Spanish Civil War broke out. In the coalition that Franco assembled to fight the Communists, the Carlists played a particularly notable part. But their joint victory won little for their cause, save freedom from Moscow (no small thing to be sure).

During and after World War II, Legitimists faced the same dilemma that was offered to the European Right in general — collaboration with the Axis in hopes of gaining part of their own agenda, and sharing the ensuing ruin — or else Resistance to them, forced alliance with liberals, Communists, and Socialists. Then would follow the left claiming the credit (which is extremely grotesque in countries like Austria, where the Socialists openly collaborated with Hitler, and many Habsburg loyalists were martyred) and complete political irrelevance after the 1960s. In France, the respective activities of the Spanish-based Legitimist and the French-based Orleanist heirs led to a re-emergence of active Legitimism in France in the 1980s.

To-day, there are small bands of Legitimists in each of their former realms. What they lack in size they often make up for in terms of division over either matters of outwardly obscure principle or else personality disputes. Adding to this fractiousness is the sad reality that for many of its adherents, Legitimism is more of a sentiment than an actual cause. One might be forgiven for thinking that their ideas are irrelevant toward their own countries’ politics, let alone those of these United States.

But a great deal has happened over the past year — and doubtless much more shall. The locking up of much of the World’s population and concomitant shutting down of their economies by “their” elected governments; the outcome of an American election where — whatever happens — at least half the population shall firmly believe the incumbent president stole the election; and the truth made apparent that the Church has no real independence from the State, but exists at its sufferance — which fact does not bother much of the Church hierarchy; all these have revealed an unpleasant truth. By forcing their subjects to wear masks, the leadership have removed theirs. We live in a post-Democratic age, awaiting whatever great reset those who matter decide upon for us. Of course, most of us (save the Irish) were not consulted when those same masters altered the definition of human to exclude the unborn and the elderly infirm, or of marriage, to include what our fathers regarded as perversion and to abolish its indissolubility.

Considering the high calibre of so many of the Legitimist writers and theorists, and the heroism of their officers and soldiers, we should look more closely at the tenets these disparate groups held in common. After all, in a world that is groaning with lack of true vision among its leaders, it will be helpful to review those ideas which inspired such greatness. In essence, they may be broken down to five — allowing for the national and historical differences between them. In many ways, they speak to the attempts of the Legitimists to update the core of Medieval Monarchy to the whatever “modern age” they were living in. Here they are:

  1. Altar. The Catholic Church must be the animating philosophy of society — defining the ethos and the rules whereby the body politic exists and conferring legitimacy and authority upon the Sovereign via the Coronation and similar rights. The Church must guide education and social welfare, and her institutions must be supported by the State.
  2. Throne. The Monarch must have effective executive power, as say, the president of the United States does, although limited by certain factors. As fount of honour and justice, he must ensure that his subjects are well governed, as well as assisting the Church in her mission. Above all, foreign and military policy must be his specific sphere. In addition, he is patron of learning and the arts and sciences.
  3. Local Liberties. The bulk of governing must be done at the lowest level possible. Only what cannot be done at the village or town level should be done by the county; only what the county cannot accomplish should go to the province; and only what is truly beyond the provincial authorities should come to the notice of the King’s ministers. Local identities as expressed in art, folklore, and the like should be encouraged as strongly as possible. The more modern tern for this is “Subsidiarity.”
  4. Corporatism. The economic and social life of the country should be organised in such a way as to encourage class collaboration and strengthen ties across the class divides. The Medieval guilds were seen as an example of this. Rich and poor should see themselves as members of one national family. This is to-day referred to as “Solidarity.”
  5. Christendom. The idea that all such States form part of a loose supra-national polity hearkens back to the ideas of the Res Publica Christiana, the Holy Empire, and so on. Member nations were seen to have certain common interests — the security of the Holy See, and of Christians in the Holy Land and mission countries.

Now, all of these ideas are a long way from the here and now. But back in 1936, forty years after joining the Order of the White Rose, Ralph Adams Cram, contemplating the failure of democracy during the depression, and the rise of dictators in most of Europe and the New Deal in America wrote an important article in The American Mercury:

Medieval political theory was based on three firm foundation stones. One: that the object of government was to insure justice. Two: that society, from the household up, must find its focus in one man — father, count, duke, king, emperor — and in this solitary individual, society, in its several unitary forms, incarnates itself and achieves its dynamic symbol. Three: that all authority came from God; that therefore a king ruled by divine right, but this divine right gave no authority to rule evilly or unjustly.

It was with this concept in his mind that he ended the article thusly:

And so, after this interlude of well-meant but futile democracy of the modern sort, we should do well to return to the old kingship. Not that of the Renaissance autocracies, which was the debasement of sovereignty, but to the elder sort under which a real democracy was not only possible but well assured. There may be liberty under a right monarchy: there has come a sort of slavery under the democracies of the modern form where a political oligarchy and a money oligarchy, now in alliance, now in conflict, have brought about grave disorder, social chaos, and the negation of the free and the good life, under the forms of a free commonwealth founded on assumptions that are baseless biologically, philosophically, historically, and from the standpoint of plain commonsense.

Certainly the problems Cram saw with democracy are far worse in post-democracy. But applying Legitimist schemes to these United States immediately raises all sorts of issues. What is important to remember is that the Old Order to which Legitimists were hearkening only ever existed in small areas of our country: southern Louisiana, northern New Mexico, and certain other fortunate places. In itself, it was not a conscious creation, but the result of the centuries long process of the Faith transforming the pagan cultures of the Mother Continent into Christendom.

What, then, are we to do in the current climate? In the immediate — survive. Keep our faith and ourselves alive and intact through whatever storms the next decades brings us. They shall pass, leaving whatever wreckage they may leave. After that, we must strive to revive and preserve whatever bits and pieces of the Old Order survive in our corner of the world, from the commons and town meetings — however attenuated they may be — of New England to the California missions. Local customs and observances, and whatever else is left to us from before. But keeping these old bones must be combined with evangelising all who we can. Only then may such bones live, and our country attain whatever vocation God desires for it.