The Reapers' War

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Following the outbreak of the Thiry Years' War, Felipe IV's minister Count-Duke Olivares tried to impose a system of disproportionate taxation and conscription known as the Union of Arms. The presence of Castilian troops in Catalonia led to a bloody revolt of reapers in Barcelona in 1640. The Generalitat declared independence and under the protection of France. The ensuing war resulted in northern Catalonia being lost to the French.


Chapter 13: The Reapers' War

Although Catalonia was still technically separate from Castile and the other territories of the former Crown of Aragon, the century since the death of Ferdinand of Aragon in 1516 had marked a gradual erosion of the Principality's traditional laws and charters. The Corts were called increasingly less frequently so the Catalan nobility and the rising urban bourgeoisie felt that their complaints went unheard by an absentee king. Not only the viceroy but the majority of the government officials in Catalonia were Castilians and the Catalans were unhappy about the progressive introduction of taxes that had only previously been paid in Castile.

Outbreaks of the black plague, successive crop failures and the economic downturn that resulted from the main trade routes shifting from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic with access to Northern Europe and the Americas, from which Catalonia was prohibited from trading, made matters worse. Scandals surrounding the ever unpopular Spanish Inquisition, whose inquisitors regularly trumped-up accusations against Catalan nobles and merchants in order to keep their possessions, only added fuel to the fire.

Like today, the attitude of the government was that Catalans were unfairly privileged and should be forced to contribute equally to Castile's military campaigns both financially and in terms of manpower. In 1626, Felipe IV's main advisor the Count-Duke Olivares instituted what was known as the Union of Arms, in which each of the Spanish monarch's territories would be obliged to send conscripts to the imperial army fighting the Thirty Years' War. All Spain's non-Castilian territories rejected the imposition with the strongest reactions coming from Portugal, Naples, Sicily and of course Catalonia, which based on the results of a vastly overestimated census was required to send 16,000 men as well as a million ducats.

Following the entry of France into the Thirty Years War in 1635, Count-Duke Olivares sent thousands of Castilian troops to strengthen the Catalan border with France against the forces of Louis XIII. The Castilians behaved like invaders and forcibly took over complete villages in Northern Catalonia and turned them into barracks.

Crops were stolen and trashed and a regime of terror was imposed on the peasant population with predictable consequences for local women.

In January 1640, a combined force of royal troops and Catalan militia under the viceroy, the Duke of Santa Coloma, retook the town of Salses in Roussillon from the French. Flushed with success Count-Duke Olivares wanted to continue north to take Paris and conscripted another 5,000 Catalans.

Violence broke out in the countryside and the Catalan peasants turned on the Castilian troops. The President of the Generalitat, Pau Claris began secret negotiations with Cardinal Richelieu, France's first minister.

More than 3,000 rural peasants from the Vallès region of central Catalonia led by the bishops of Vic and Barcelona marched on the Catalan capital and arrived in Barcelona on May 22nd 1640. Meanwhile, in the Empordà, a group of peasants set on and murdered royal officials who had taken refuge in a convent. The Castilian troops withdrew to Roussillon committing violent acts of revenge in Calonge, Palafrugell, Roses and other towns along the way.

The atmosphere of violence was widespread throughout Catalonia but it was in Barcelona on Corpus Christi that events came to a head. The date is remembered as the Corpus of Blood and marked the start of the first full-scale Catalan uprising after a century of Castilian impositions.

The Corpus of Blood

On June 7th 1640, day labourers from central Catalonia as well as escaping militia men from the north arrived in the rural town of Sant Andreu de Palomar just outside Barcelona in search of work. Traditionally, Corpus Christi was the start of the harvest when reapers could expect to find jobs on the rich farms to the north of Barcelona.

That year little work was available and the reapers were angered by the presence of Castilian troops, who were seen as responsible. After a series of altercations with the military, one of the reapers was killed. In response a furious mob took the flag of the parish of Sant Andreu as their standard and set out for Barcelona.

As the march progressed, more peasants arrived from the countryside and the reapers were joined by local tradesmen and workers. By the time they reached the city, the reapers were after blood and Castilian officials fled for their lives as buildings were destroyed. As maximum representative of Felipe IV, the incumbent viceroy, the Duke of Santa Coloma, was the main object of their anger. The mob made for the viceroy's palace, which they sacked and burned. The duke had already escaped to the beach hoping to find a boat and flee the city. It was here that the reapers caught him and ripped his body to shreds.

A full-scale revolution had broken out and the representatives of the Generalitat, principally Pau Claris and Francesc de Tamarit realised that this was a now or never opportunity for Catalonia to break free from Castilian control. With promises of independence, Pau Claris managed to placate the rebels and by June 11th, the reapers had left the city.

Count-Duke Olivares also decided that it was time to finish with Catalan belligerence once and for all and sent an army of 26,000 Castilian troops, commanded by the Marquis of Velez, to invade Catalonia. The Generalitat signed an alliance with the French but with the French army still in the north, the invading Castilians took a number of towns and executed hundreds of prisoners.

This only strengthened Barcelona's will to resist and on January 16th 1641, Pau Claris declared the independent Republic of Catalonia. A week later, though, the Generalitat swore allegiance to Louis XIII and the combined Franco-Catalan force gained a resounding victory at the Battle of Montjuïc on January 26th. With Barcelona secured, Pau Claris began further negotiations with the French ambassador Du Plessis Besancon and in December 1641 under the Treaty of Ceret, Catalonia became an independent republic under the protection of France.

At this point, Catalonia, like Portugal, could have broken free of Castilian rule but a series of untimely deaths changed the course of events. The President of the Generalitat, Pau Claris died less than a month later in February 1641 and the Catalans were left without a strong leader. The architect of the Franco-Catalan alliance Cardinal Richelieu died in December 1642 and was followed a few months later by King Louis XIII. At the same time, as a result of uprisings not only in Catalonia but in Portugal, Naples and Sicily as well, Felipe IV dismissed the provocative Count-Duke Olivares and the reasons for war suddenly changed.

Catalonia nominally remained an independent French protectorate but its position as a terra de pas, a passageway and disputed territory between the great powers of Castile and France, soon became clear. Although French troops had entered Catalonia as allies of the Catalan rebels, they behaved in much the same way as the Castilian troops had. Catalan peasants were left with the sensation that little had changed.

Hopes for Catalan independence took another blow following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This put an end to the major conflicts of the Thirty Years War, and the Castilian army was freed to concentrate on the campaign against Catalonia. Later that year they captured Lleida and in 1649 advanced almost as far as Barcelona. It was now only a question of time before Catalonia would fall to Castile once again.

In 1651, Juan José of Austria, Felipe IV's illegitimate son recaptured the towns surrounding the capital and the Siege of Barcelona began. The Generalitat recognised Felipe IV, and Francesc de Margarit, Pau Claris's successor as President of the Generalitat, fled to France. However, the people of Barcelona refused to surrender and the siege lasted a further fifteen months. The city finally capitulated to Juan José of Austria on October 11th 1652 and in January 1653, Felipe IV confirmed the privileges of Catalonia with important limitations.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees

Negotiations and peace between Castile and France were a long drawn out affair but finally Felipe IV, Luis de Haro and Pedro Coloma for the Castilians and Louis XIV,

Cardinal Mazarin and Hugues de Lionne met on Pheasant Island on the Basque border between France and Spain in November 1659. The treaty brought the Thirty Years War to an end and France was given control of the Catalan territories of Roussillon, Conflent, Vallespir and part of Cerdanya in return for the French giving up claims to Spanish territories in Flanders.

The settlement was reached without consulting the Corts Catalanes. Not only was Catalan territory carved up but the French quickly abolished Catalan laws and the use of the Catalan language thus breaking the agreement signed by Louis XIII. The affected territories conspired to return to Catalonia and their loss was only officially accepted in 1720, after the defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession when Catalan government was fully subjugated to Castile.

The incident is a clear example of Spain's attitude towards Catalonia's territorial integrity. Unlike Gibraltar or Menorca, which were ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, no Spanish government has ever complained about the loss of the Northern Catalan territories. Perhaps this is because it has never really considered Catalonia to be a bona fide part of Spain.

The Reapers' War and the events leading up to it are an important turning point in Catalan history and in the relations between Catalonia and Castile. The Union of Arms is the first clear attempt to tax the Catalans in support of Castilian military objectives as well as the first major attack on the traditional laws and charters of Catalonia.

Centralising tendencies meant that in Madrid what was formerly Castile was now considered Spain. Castilian foreign policy was imposed on the diverse territories of the Iberian peninsula and beyond in the name of the common good. Portugal managed to break free from this regime in 1668 but Catalonia and the rest of the Crown of Aragon remained under Castilian control.

Catalonia had lost part of its territory. Its institutions and charters were retained with restrictions. The main events of Catalan history from 1652 onwards are centred on guaranteeing or regaining the traditional laws. It is no surprise that, although not composed until 1892, the Catalan national anthem Els Segadors, literally The Reapers, commemorates Catalonia's first attempt at creating a fully independent republic.

Now Read Chapter Fourteen of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The War of the Spanish Succession

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