The War of the Spanish Succession

April 21, 2021 Off By barcelonas

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

When Carlos II died without heir, there were two candidates to the throne – Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, and Archduke Charles of Austria. Philip was crowned Felipe V and the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. Catalonia was initially loyal to Felipe but changed sides when Archduke Charles’ English allies promised to uphold the Catalan charters and institutions. Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the allies withdrew from the war and Catalonia was left to fight the mighty Franco-Castilian army alone.

  • The War of the Spanish Succession is Chapter Fourteen of my book Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective.


Battle of Malplaquet 1709 – War of the Spanish Succession


Chapter 14: The War of the Spanish Succession

A physically and mentally deficient product of royal inbreeding, it was no surprise when Carlos II of Castile died without heir in 1700. With an eye on the territories controlled by the Spanish monarchy, which included Castile and the American colonies, the Crown of Aragon with its Italian possessions and some remaining parts of the Netherlands, rival European powers had been angling to position their preferred claimants for some years. There was plenty of manoeuvring at the Spanish court too but the final choice came down to two candidates.

Philip of Anjou was grandson of France’s Louis XIV, who as son of the Castilian Princess Anne of Austria, was Carlos II’s second cousin. Louis XIV was also married to Maria Theresa of Austria, daughter of Felipe IV. The other candidate was Archduke Charles of Austria, the second son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Austria, who was also Carlos II’s second cousin. So both claimants were pretty evenly matched.

The truth is neither pretender was much to the liking of anyone. The union of the Spanish territories with France or the reunion of the Spanish and Austrian branches of the Habsburg family would upset the balance of power in Europe by creating a new continental superpower.

The pro-French faction at the Castilian court got the upper hand when, after having submitted Carlos to three exorcisms, it was conveniently proved that anyone German was a demon. The king, whose epithet was ‘Carlos the Bewitched’, designated Philip of Anjou as his heir in his final will and testament.

Initially surprised by the will, Louis XIV was prepared to divide the inheritance in order avoid war but the testament specified that all Spanish territories should remain united. So Philip of Anjou was forced to either accept everything or renounce the entire inheritance. This would result in the whole empire going to Archduke Charles, which was just as unacceptable to all concerned.

Had Louis XIV not been such an inherent despot, things might have been settled. Four days after Philip of Anjou crossed the French border into Spain in February 1701, the Sun King expelled Spanish troops from the Burgundian Netherlands, modern Belgium and Luxemburg. Prior to the coronation Louis XIV also created a cabinet known as El Despacho made up of pro-French ministers with whom the future Felipe V would meet every day. The new government immediately signed a number of alliances between Spain and France.

Philip of Anjou was crowned Felipe V of Castile on May 8th 1701. Ten days later the Vice-Admiral of the French fleet, the Count of Esterées, was named Commander of the Spanish fleet. Louis XIV’s expansionist ambitions were clear. Not surprisingly the rival powers began to get nervous.

On July 9th 1701, Austrian troops commanded by Eugene of Savoy invaded the Spanish-owned Duchy of Milan and when the French retaliated, the War of The Spanish Succession began. The initial anti-French alliance comprised Austria, Prussia and the Electorate of Hannover. They were soon joined by England and Holland, who Louis XIV had banned from trading with Spanish ports.

The War of the Spanish Succession lasted 12 years and involved the continent’s most powerful nations. The main areas of conflict were not restricted to the Iberian peninsula. There were also important battles in the Netherlands as well as in Italy and Germany.

The war was not a War of Catalan Independence but rather a war which resulted in the Catalans having their traditional freedoms truncated because of their support for the losing side. In fact, the territories of the Crown of Aragon initially accepted Felipe V but there was an undertow of anti-French feeling and mistrust that was bound to bubble to the surface.

The Catalan Position

The Reapers War had supposed a limitation of traditional rights and after the fall of Barcelona, the Crown of Castile controlled the city elections. The existing anti-French sentiments in Catalonia caused by the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659, in which the Principality lost Roussillon and other territories, were exacerbated by the 9 Years War from 1688 to 1697. This was another attempt by Louis XIV to annex the whole of Catalonia and the French army had succeeded in occupying Barcelona until 1697.

When Louis XIV’s grandson came to the throne just three years later, the Catalans were justifiably suspicious. Felipe V arrived in Barcelona in September 1701, where he solemnly promised to uphold the Catalan constitutions and was sworn in as King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona. Aware of the need to win favour, early the following year Felipe called the first Corts Catalanes since 1636 at which he accepted virtually all the Catalan petitions. As a further show of his commitment to Catalonia, he also celebrated his wedding to Maria Luisa of Savoy in Figueres in November 1701.

The Catalans were placated and given that the alternative, Archduke Charles of Habsburg, belonged to the dynasty responsible for many of Catalonia’s woes over the previous two centuries, the Catalan nobility were happy to take up arms alongside Castile in the war.

The position of the bourgeoisie was less clear. Catalan merchants, interested in strengthening the maritime economy, were increasingly looking to Holland and England for a model that would allow the incipient liquor and textile industries to open up new markets.

This new class of producers and exporters called themselves Regeneracionistas and wanted to take back Catalonia to its former commercial glory after two centuries of decadence under Castilian rule. As with all identitary Catalan movements the Regenerationists based their optimism on a return to the traditional Catalan institutions of the Generalitat, Corts and Consell de Cent, over which the merchant class would have more direct control. Tension was not eased by the fact that after Felipe V’s departure, his viceroy Fernández de Velasco reinstated Castilian policies as if nothing had been agreed.

The Fall of Barcelona

The very popular former Viceroy of Catalonia Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, affectionately known locally as Jordi de Darmstadt, had joined forces with Archduke Charles. So when he dropped anchor off the coast of Barcelona as commander of a force of 48 English and Dutch vessels and 1,200 soldiers, he co-commanded with Admiral Rourke, the local population was bound to question its loyalties.

Despite general dissatisfaction with the despotic Castilian Viceroy Francisco Fernández de Velasco, the authorities managed to form the Coronela of Barcelona made up of 5,000 local men. Reinforced by 700 regular infantry and 180 cavalry, the Coronela defended Barcelona admirably and the allied fleet was forced to flee after briefly bombing the city.

Meanwhile in May 1705 close to the inland town of Vic, a group of local militia known as the Vigatans, many of whom had fought alongside Jordi of Darmstadt, met with Mitford Crowe, the emissary of England’s Queen Anne. The Vigatans agreed to raise an army of 6,000 Catalans and England would send 8,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry and ammunition for the combined force. The agreement was formalised as the Pact of Genoa a month later and the most important of the 16-clauses was England’s solemn promise to defend and uphold the laws and constitutions of Catalonia even in the case of the allies losing the war.

With military commanders Bac de Roda, Antoni Desvalls and Josep Moragues amongst their number, the Vigatans took up arms against the Bourbon troops in the Catalan countryside and quickly pushed south into Valencia, where they were joined by local militia. The English troops arrived following the successful conquest of Gibraltar and after the rapid fall of Denia, Alzira and Altea, Archduke Charles was proclaimed King of Valencia in August 1705.

The same month a fleet of 180 vessels with 9,000 troops under the command of Lord Peterborough and Jordi de Darmstadt arrived off Barcelona. The local authorities, still loyal to Felipe V, tried to form a Coronela but this time the population never fell fully behind the defence. With the arrival of the Vigatans for the Battle of Montjuïc, the combined Allied-Catalan force captured the castle and bombed the city. Mataró declared for Charles and sent a battalion. Girona, Tortosa, Tarragona and Lleida all fell to the allies during September. The Viceroy of Barcelona Fernández de Velasco signed the submission of Barcelona on October 9th and the population finally rose in rebellion against the Castilians.

Charles entered the city on October 22nd and after swearing the Catalan Constitutions, was proclaimed King Carles III on November 7th 1705. It was clear that although sectors of Catalan society had reasons for supporting Austrian Habsburg Archduke Charles over French Bourbon Philip of Anjou, it was really a string of military successes and pressure from the countryside that had tipped the balance in the allies’ favour.

King Carles III

With the city now behind him, Archduke Charles, now crowned Carles III, was keen to consolidate his position and at the Corts Catalanes in early 1706, conceded to many Regeneracionista demands. Amongst the most important of these was the return of the Consell de Cent election system and a clear commitment to regain the lost territories of Roussillon and Cerdanya for Catalonia.

Felipe V wasn’t going to let a strategic prize such as Barcelona escape so easily and on April 3rd 1706, arrived  by land with 18,000 troops. After setting up his court in the nearby town of Sarrià, he laid siege to Barcelona. The city was defended by a force of around 6,000 Catalan troops supported by 2,000 British, Dutch and Austrian infantry.

On April 26th, Montjuïc fell to the Bourbons but when the Franco-Castilian generals got news of the arrival at the port of Barcelona of 56 ships carrying 10,000 allied reinforcements, their troops fell into disarray. Felipe V was forced to flee Catalonia through Roussillon and had to return to Castile via Navarre.

In many respects this was the high point of the allied campaign in Catalonia. By the autumn both Zaragoza and Mallorca had fallen to Charles and the whole of the Crown of Aragon was under allied control. Had the War of Spanish Succession ended in the winter of 1706, the history of Catalonia would have changed its course.

Felipe V Fights Back

The Bourbon counter-offensive began immediately. After a string of victories in the south, on April 25th 1707 the decisive Battle of Almansa on the Castile-Valencia border gave Felipe V’s most brilliant military commander, the Duke of Berwick, his most important victory. Following a campaign famous for its cruelty, both Valencia and Aragon were recaptured. No prisoners were taken and villages were burned as the Franco-Castilian troops clearly showed what would happen to those who continued to fight against the Bourbon King of Spain.

In June 1707 Felipe V revoked all Aragonese and Valencian constitutions and privileges and imposed Castilian laws and taxes under the Nueva Planta decrees. Rebels were publicly executed and those who had remained loyal to Castile throughout the conflict were given government positions.

Although Carles III’s troops fought back and even reached Madrid in 1710, the tide had turned. Felipe V’s Franco-Castilian army now had the upper hand. The next few years were a mopping up operation in which major towns in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia were successively captured. By early 1711, the only areas still loyal to Carles III were Barcelona Province and the Balearic Islands. Then disaster struck for the Catalans.

On April 26th 1711, Charles’ brother Emperor of Joseph of Austria died aged only 23. What had seemed impossible 10 years earlier had finally happened. Archduke Charles had become Holy Roman Emperor and returned to Vienna to be crowned. Inevitably his attention turned away from the Iberian Peninsula.

Although they struggled on, the allied powers were now in a quandary. If the allies won the war, the Austrian and Spanish possessions would be united under one monarch. Felipe V had proved himself to be his own man during the conflict. Although he would ally with France, it seemed clear that he would rule Spain alone.

The Treaty of Utrecht

When the Whigs, who had supported the war, lost the British elections to the anti-war Tories, it was only a question of time before an agreement was reached. Great Britain and France had negotiated a division of the Spanish Empire with most of Spain’s Italian possessions going to Austria. When Portugal, Savoy and the Dutch Republic were also brought to the negotiation table to sign the Treaty of Utrecht in April 1713, the British were granted the strategic prizes of Gibraltar and Menorca for themselves.

The Catalans were desperate to defend their constitutions and charters but the major powers had more important concerns. On June 13th at the Conference of Cervera, representatives of Archduke Charles and Felipe V tried to negotiate the withdrawal of allied troops and the surrender of Barcelona and Tarragona in return for guarantees on Catalonia’s constitutions and charters but talks broke down without agreement.

On July 7th 1713, Philip V’s representatives ordered Barcelona to surrender but with Castilian brutality and the Nueva Planta decrees in Valencia and Aragon in mind, the city’s military council, the Junta de Braços decided that resistance was the only way to insure the survival of Catalan constitutions. A proclamation was sent out with the Declaration of War on the morning of July 9th. The next day Barcelonans were called up to join either the Regiment de la Generalitat de Catalunya or the Regiment de la Ciutat de Barcelona. The defence of Barcelona had begun.