Ferdinand VII (October 14, 1784 - September 29, 1833) was King of Spain from 1813 to 1833.
The eldest son of Charles IV, king of Spain, and of his wife Maria Louisa of Parma, he was born in the vast palace of El Escorial near Madrid.
The events with which he was connected were tragic and of the widest European interest. In his youth he occupied the painful position of an heir apparent who was jealously excluded from all share in government by his parents and the royal favorite Manuel de Godoy, his mother's lover. National discontent with a feeble government produced a revolution in 1805. In October 1807, Ferdinand was arrested for his complicity in the conspiracy of the Escorial in which liberal reformers aimed at securing the help of the emperor Napoleon. When the conspiracy was discovered, Ferdinand betrayed his associates and grovelled to his parents.
When his father's abdication was extorted by a popular riot at Aranjuez in March 1808, he ascended the throne but turned again to Napoleon, in the fatuous hope that the emperor would support him. He was in his turn forced to make an abdication and imprisoned in France for almost seven years at the Chateau of Valençay in the town of Valençay, while Spain, with the help of Great Britain, fought for its independence.
In March 1814 the Allies returned him to Madrid. The Spanish people, blaming the liberal, enlightened policies of the francophiles (afrancesados) for incurring the godless Napoleonic occupation and the ruinous Peninsular War, at first welcomed Fernando. Ferdinand soon found that while Spain was fighting for independence in his name and while in his name juntas had governed in Spanish America, a new world had been born of foreign invasion and domestic revolution. Spain was no longer an absolute monarchy under the liberal Constitution of 1812. Ferdinand, in being restored to the throne, guaranteed the liberals that he would govern on the basis of the existing constitution, but, encouraged by conservatives backed by the Church hierarchy, he repudiated the constitution within weeks (May 4) and arrested the liberal leaders (May 10), justifying his actions as repudiating a constitution made by the Cortes in his absence and without his consent. Thus he had come back to assert the Bourbon doctrine that the sovereign authority resided in his person only.
Meanwhile, the South American Wars of Independence were under way, though Bolívar's first victory did not occur until 1817. The Manila galleons and tax revenues from the Spanish Empire were interrupted, and Spain was all but bankrupt. Secret societies and trade associations were crushed equally.
Ferdinand's restored autocracy was guided by a small camarilla of his favourites. He changed his ministers every few months, whimsical and ferocious by turns. The other autocratic powers of the Quintuple Alliance, though forced to support him as the representative of legitimacy in Spain, watched his proceedings with disgust and alarm. "The king," wrote Friedrich von Gentz to the hospodar Caradja on December 1, 1814, "himself enters the houses of his first ministers, arrests them, and hands them over to their cruel enemies"; and again, on January 14, 1815, "The king has so debased himself that he has become no more than the leading police agent and gaoler of his country."
In 1820 his misrule provoked a revolt in favor of the Constitution of 1812, which began with a mutiny of the troops under Col. Rafael Riego and the king was quickly made prisoner. He grovelled to the insurgents as he had done to his parents, descending to the meanest submissions while fear was on him, then intriguing and, when detected, grovelling again. Ferdinand had restored the Jesuits upon his return; now the Society had become identified with repression and absolutism among the liberals, who attacked them: twenty-five Jesuits were slain in Madrid in 1822. For the rest of the 19th century, expulsions and re-establishment of the Jesuits would continue to be touchmarks of liberal or authoritarian political regimes.
When at the beginning of 1823, as a result of the Congress of Verona, the French invaded Spain, "invoking the God of St Louis, for the sake of preserving the throne of Spain to a descendant of Henry IV, and of reconciling that fine kingdom with Europe," and in May the revolutionary party carried Ferdinand to Cádiz, he continued to make promises of amendment till he was free. When freed after the Battle of Trocadero, and the fall of Cadiz he revenged himself with a ferocity which disgusted his far from liberal allies. In violation of his oath to grant an amnesty, he revenged himself for three years of coercion by killing on a scale which revolted his "rescuers," and against which the duke of Angoulême, powerless to interfere, protested by refusing the Spanish decorations offered him for his military services.
Last years of reign
During his last years Ferdinand's energy was abated. He no longer changed ministers every few months as a sport, and he allowed some of them to conduct the current business of government. His habits of life were telling on him. He became torpid, bloated and horrible to look at. After his fourth marriage, with Maria Christina of Bourbon-Two Sicilies in 1829, he was persuaded by his wife to set aside the law of succession of Philip V, which gave a preference to all the males of the family in Spain over the females. His marriage had brought him only two daughters. The change in the order of succession established by his dynasty in Spain, which angered a large part of the nation, and made a civil war, the Carlist Wars, inevitable.
When well, he consented to the change under the influence of his wife. When ill, he was terrified by priestly advisers, who were partisans of his brother Don Carlos. What his final decision was is perhaps doubtful. His wife was mistress by his death-bed, and she could put the words she chose into the mouth of a dead man - and could move the dead hand at her will. Ferdinand died on September 29, 1833.
It had been a frequent saying with the more zealous royalists of Spain that a king must be wiser than his ministers, for he was placed on the throne and directed by God. Since the reign of Ferdinand VII no one has maintained this unqualified version of the great doctrine of divine right.
King Ferdinand VII kept a diary during the troubled years 1820-1823, which has been published by the count de Casa Valencia.
Assessment of the Encyclopedia Britannica 1911
- We have to distinguish the part of Ferdinand VII in all these transactions, in which other and better men were concerned. It can confidently be said to have been uniformly base. He had perhaps no right to complain that he was kept aloof from all share in government while only heir apparent, for this was the traditional practice of his family. But as heir to the throne he had a right to resent the degradation of the crown he was to inherit, and the power of a favourite who was his mother's lover. If he had put himself at the head of a popular rising he would have been followed, and would have had a good excuse. His course was to enter on dim intrigues at the instigation of his first wife, Maria Antonietta of Naples. After her death in 1806 he was drawn into other intrigues by flatterers. At Valancay, where he was sent as a prisoner of state, he sank contentedly into vulgar vice, and did not scruple to applaud the French victories over the people who were suffering unutterable misery in his cause.
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.