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First Carlist War
Part of Carlist Wars
Location Spain
Result Liberal victory
Flag of New Spain.svgCarlists supporting

Infante Carlos of Spain
Flag United Kingdom Portugal Brazil Algarves.svg Portuguese loyal to Miguel of Portugal

Liberals (Isabelinos or Cristinos) supporting
Isabella II of Spain and her regent mother Maria Christina

United KingdomUnited Kingdom
Portugal Portuguese loyal to Pedro IV

Tomás de Zumalacárregui
Ramón Cabrera
Rafael Maroto
Vicente González Moreno
Miguel Gómez Damas
Sebestian Gabriel de Borbón
Vicente Genaro de Quesada
José Ramón Rodil y Campillo
Francisco Espoz y Mina
Luis Fernández de Córdova
Baldomero Espartero
Isidro de Alaix Fábregas
Jerónimo Valdés
Marcelino de Oraá Lecumberri
Manuel O'Doyle
Casualties and losses
between 15.000 and 60.000 Spain: between 15.000 and 65.000, France: 7.700, GB: 2.500, Pedroists: 50

The First Carlist War was a civil war in Spain from 1833 to 1839.


Historical background

At the beginning of the 18th century, Philip V, the first Bourbon king of Spain, promulgated the Salic Law, which declared illegal the inheritance of the Spanish crown by women. His purpose was to thwart the Habsburgs' regaining the throne by way of the female dynastic line.

A century later, King Ferdinand VII of Spain had no male descendant, but only two daughters, Isabella (later known as Isabella II of Spain) and Luisa Fernanda. So he promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction, to allow Isabella to become Queen after his death.
The Infante Carlos, the king's brother, would have normally become king without the Pragmática Sanción. He and his followers, such as Secretary of Justice Francisco Tadeo Calomarde) pressed Ferdinand to change his mind. But the ill Ferdinand kept his decision and when he died, 29 September 1833, Isabella became the legitimate queen. As she was only a child, a regent was needed: her mother, Queen Consort María Cristina.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the political situation in Spain was extremely problematic. During the war of independence against Napoleon, the Cortes met in Cádiz (1812) and elaborated the first Spanish constitution, possibly the most modern and most liberal in the world. After the war, when Ferdinand VII returned to Spain, he annulled the constitution in the Manifest of Valencia, and thus became an absolute king, governing by decrees and restoring the Spanish Inquisition, abolished by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon.

Towards the end of his life, Ferdinand made some concessions to the liberals, giving them hopes of a liberal rule. But there was a strong absolutist party which did not want to lose its position. Its members knew that María Cristina and Isabella would make liberal reforms, so they looked for another candidate for the throne; and their natural choice, with the background of the Salic Law, was Ferdinand's brother Carlos. One historian has written that “the first Carlist war was fought not so much on the basis of the legal claim of Don Carlos, but because a passionate, dedicated section of the Spanish people favored a return to a kind of absolute monarchy that they felt would protect their individual freedoms (fueros), their regional individuality and their religious conservatism.”[1]

A vivid summary of the war describes it as follows: "The Christinos and Carlists thirsted for each other’s blood, with all the fierce ardour of civil strife, animated by the memory of years of mutual insult, cruelty, and wrong. Brother against brother – father against son – best friend turned to bitterest foe – priests against their flocks – kindred against kindred."[2]

The autonomy of Aragon, Valencia and Catlonia had been abolished in the 18th century by the Nueva Planta Decrees that created a centralised Spanish state. Navarre, however, retained its self-governing status until 1833. The resentment against the loss of autonomy was considerably strong.

Basque reasons for Carlist uprising

Zones under Carlist military control (dark green) and areas where they found popular support (light green)

Meanwhile, there was a continued movement to suppress the Basque Fueros and to move the customs borders to the Pyrenees. Since the 1700s a new emergent class had an interest in weakening the powerful Basque nobles and their influence and commerce, including that extending throughout the world with the help of the Jesuit order.

The newly appointed Spanish courtiers supported some of the great powers against the Basques at least since the abolition of the Jesuit order and the Godoy regime. First they sided with the French Bourbons to suppress the Jesuits, with the formidable changes in America and the subsequent loss of Spanish influence. Then Godoy sided with the English against the Basques in the Convention War of 1793 and immediately afterwards with the French of Napoleon also against the Basques. The English interest was to destroy, for as long as possible, Spanish commercial routes and power, which was mainly sustained by the Basque ports, commercial navy and companies (Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas). The Spaniards only helped in such a destructive effort, bringing the Spanish empire to total annihilation.

The contenders

The people of the Basque Provinces and Navarre sided with Carlos because of traditionalism and historical respect for the Catholic Church; ideologically, Carlos was clearly close to them. There have been many authors who believed that the Carlist cause in the Basque Country was a foralist cause. But this point of view is largely subjective, with the clear intention of creating indications of a Basque nationalism before the Arana brothers (an inspired and quite neutral version in "The Basque Nationalism", by Stanley G. Payne). Many supporters of the Carlist cause believed a traditionalist rule would respect the ancient Foral institutions better.
Another important reason for the massive mobilisation of the Basque Provinces and Navarre for the Carlist cause was the tremendous influence of the Basque clergy in the society. Salvador de Madariaga, in his book "Memories of a Federalist" (Buenos Aires, 1967), accused the Basque clergy of being "the heart, the brain and the root of the intolerance and the hard line" of the Spanish Catholic Church; there are also other social and economic causes, which have not been properly studied. In fact, there are more narrative books about the Carlist War in the Basque Provinces than historical works. This means a "romantic" vision of the Basque people fighting for their rights against the foreign rule of Castile.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia and Aragón, the people saw the chance of recovering their foral rights, which were lost after the Spanish Succession War when Philip V defeated the armies that fought for Archduke Karl of Austria, the other candidate to the throne after the death of Charles II of Spain. Carlos, however, never said anything about the foral rights.

On the other side, the liberals and moderates united to defend the "new order" represented by María Cristina and her three-year-old daughter, Isabella. They controlled the institutions, almost the whole army and the cities; the Carlist movement was stronger in the country. The liberals had the crucial support of United Kingdom, France and Portugal, support that was shown in the important credits to Cristina's treasury and the military help from the British (British Legion or Westminster Legion under General Lacy Evans), the French (the French Foreign Legion) and the Portuguese (a part of the regular army, under General Barão Das Antas). The Liberals were strong enough to win the war in two months, but an inefficient government and the dispersion of the Carlist forces gave Carlos time to consolidate his forces and hold out for almost seven years in the northern and eastern provinces.

As Paul Johnson has written, "both royalists and liberals began to develop strong local followings, which were to perpetuate and transmute themselves, through many open commotions and deceptively tranquil intervals, until they exploded in the merciless civil war of 1936-39."[3]

The combatants

Carlist forces

Both sides raised special troops during the war. The Liberal side counted with the volunteer Basque units known as the Chapelgorris, while Tomás de Zumalacárregui created the special units known as aduaneros. Zumalacárregui also formed the unit known as Guías de Navarra from Liberal troops from La Mancha, Valencia, Andalusia and other places who had been made prisoners at the Battle of Alsasua (1834). After this battle, they had been faced with the choice of joining the Carlist troops or being executed.

The term Requetés was at first applied to just the Tercer Batallón de Navarra (Third Battalion of Navarre) and subsequently to all Carlist combatants.

The war attracted independent adventurers, such as the Briton C. F. Henningsen, who served as Zumalacárregui’s chief bodyguard (and later was his biographer), or Martín Zurbano, a contrabandista or smuggler, who "soon after the commencement of the war sought and obtained permission to raise a body of men to act in conjunction with the queen’s troops against the Carlists. His standard, once displayed, was resorted to by smugglers, robbers, and outcasts of all descriptions, attracted by the prospect of plunder and adventure. These were increased by deserters..."[4]

About 250 foreign volunteers fought for the Carlists, the majority French monarchists, but also men from Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Piedmont, and the German states.[5] Friedrich, Prince of Schwarzenberg fought for the Carlists, and had taken part in the French conquest of Algeria and the Swiss civil war of the Sonderbund. The Carlists' ranks also included such men as Prince Felix Lichnowsky, Adolfo Loning, Baron Wilhelm Von Radhen, A. Von Goeben, all of whom later wrote books concerning the war.[5]

The Liberal generals, such as Vicente Genaro de Quesada and Marcelino de Oraá Lecumberri, were often veterans of the Peninsular War, or of the wars resulting from independence movements in South America, such as Jerónimo Valdés, who participated in the battle of Ayacucho (1824).

Both sides executed prisoners of war by firing squad, the most notorious incident occurring at Heredia, when 118 Liberal prisoners were executed by order of Zumalacárregui. The British attempted to intervene, and through Lord Eliot, the Lord Eliot Convention was signed on April 27-28, 1835.

Liberal forces

The treatment of prisoners of the First Carlist War was thus regulated. The positive effects were immediate. A soldier of the British Legion wrote that:

The British and Chapelgorris who fell into their hands [the Carlists], were mercilessly put to death, sometimes by means of tortures worthy of the North American Indians; but the Spanish troops of the line were saved by virtue, I believe, of the Eliot treaty, and after being kept for some time in prison, where they were treated with sufficient harshness, were frequently exchanged for an equal number of prisoners made by the Christinos.[6]

However, though "it was mutually agreed upon to treat the prisoners taken on either side according to the ordinary rules of war, a few months only elapsed before similar barbarities were practiced with all their former remorselessness."[7]

The war in the Northern Front

Theater of operations of the Liberal Army of the North, May 1836

The war was long and hard, and the Carlist forces achieved important victories in the north under the direction of the brilliant general Tomás de Zumalacárregui. Opposing his advisers, Carlos V decided to conquer Bilbao, defended by the British navy. With such an important city in his power, the Prussian or Russian Tsarist banks would give him credit to win the war; one of the most important problems for Carlos was a lack of funds. In the siege of Bilbao, Zumalacárregui was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet. The wound was not serious, but it did not heal properly, and finally General Zumalacárregui lost his life on June 25, 1835. Many historians believe the circumstances of his death were suspicious, and have pointed out that the general had many enemies in the Carlist court; however, nothing has been proven.

In the European theatre all the great powers backed the Isabeline army, as many British observers wrote in their reports. Meanwhile, in the east, Carlist general Ramón Cabrera held the initiative in the war, but his forces were too few to achieve a decisive victory over the liberal forces. In 1837 the Carlist effort culminated in the Royal Expedition, which reached the walls of Madrid, but subsequently retreated after the Battle of Aranzueque.

The war in the Southern Front

In the south, the Carlist general Miguel Gómez Damas attempted to establish a strong position there for the Carlists, and he left Ronda on November 18, 1836, entering Algeciras on November 22. However, after Gómez Damas departed from Algeciras, he was defeated by Ramón María Narváez y Campos at the Battle of Majaceite. An English commentator wrote that “it was at Majaciete that [Narváez] rescued Andalucía from the Carlist invasion by a brilliant coup de main, in a rapid but destruction action, which will not readily be effaced from the memory of the southern provinces.”[8]

At Arcos de la Frontera, in charge of a squadron of 70 horsemen, the Liberal Diego de Leon managed to detain a Carlist column until Liberal reinforcements arrived.

Ramon Cabrera had collaborated with Gómez Damas in the expedition of Andalusia, where his defeat of the Liberals allowed for the temporary occupation of Córdoba and Extremadura until Cabrera's defeat at Villarrobledo.

The end of the war

Map of Spain in 1854 after the First Carlist War. It shows the areas where different law systems, tax frontiers and military power applied, although unified after the First Carlist War.

After the death of Zumalacárregui, the liberals slowly regained the initiative but were not able to win the war until 1839.

The liberals suffered a defeat at the Battle of Maella (1838).

The war ended with the Convenio de Vergara, also known as the Abrazo de Vergara ("the embrace in Vergara"; Bergara in Basque), 31 August 1839, between the liberal general Baldomero Espartero, Count of Luchana and the Carlist General Rafael Maroto. Some authors have written that General Maroto was a traitor who forced Carlos to accept the peace, but it is clear that the Carlists were too tired to continue with the war against the liberal government. In the east, General Cabrera continued fighting but he was alone and finally had to flee to France. However, Cabrera was considered a hero and returned for the Third Carlist War.

Rumors (that continue to this day) circulated that the General Maroto, as well as other Carlist generals, were secretly Freemasons, subverting the Carlists from within.

Battles of the First Carlist War (Chronology)


  1. ^ Bradley Smith, Spain: A History in Art (Gemini-Smith, Inc., 1979), 259.
  2. ^ "Evenings at Sea," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 48, July-December 1840 (T. Cadell and W. Davis, 1840), 42.
  3. ^ Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 660.
  4. ^ "A Night Excursion with Martin Zurbano," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 48, July-December 1840 (T. Cadell and W. Davis, 1840), 740.
  5. ^ a b 19th Century´s militar history in the Basque Country
  6. ^ Charles William Thompson, Twelve months in the British legion, by an officer of the Ninth regiment (Oxford University, 1836), 129.
  7. ^ Henry Bill, The History of the World (1854), 142.
  8. ^ T. M. Hughes, Revelations of Spain in 1845 (London: Henry Colburn, 1845), 124.

External links



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