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Freedom for a Treacherous King: October 1, 1823

Though the vast majority of those who had fought in the Spanish resistance against Napoleon had done so out of love for their homeland and devotion to their Catholic Faith, most of the resistance leaders (members of the bourgeoisie, scholars, and military officers) were thorough Liberals. After establishing a junta, these leaders had in 1812 drawn up a constitution that granted most governmental power to a legislature (called the cortes) and very little power to the king. The king had the power to sign bills into law, but no power to make laws. He had only a suspensive veto power: he could delay bills becoming laws, but he could not stop them entirely.

Proclamation of the Constitution of 1812

The Spanish “Constitution of 1812,” as it was called, was in some ways very similar to the French Constitution of 1791. But it differed from France’s constitution in some very important ways. The Constitution of 1812 said, for instance, that the “Catholic Apostolic Roman and only true faith” was the religion of the “Spanish nation.” The state, the constitution said, should protect the Church and prevent the practice of any other religion. It allowed for freedom of the press, except that publications were not permitted to attack the Catholic Faith. Yet, like the French constitution, the Constitution of 1812 did not allow the nobility or the Church to have representatives in the one-house cortes. This meant that these two estates no longer had any legal means to protect their interests and rights.

Fernando VII

The Spanish clergy, nobility, and even the peasantry opposed the Liberals, not only due to the Constitution of 1812 but also because the cortes had abolished the Inquisition and seized Church lands. Backed by the bulk of the Spanish nation, Fernando VII abolished the constitution and the Liberal cortes. The king also abolished individual liberties granted by the constitution and the cortes, reestablished the Inquisition, and enacted measures against Liberals that even Metternich thought were too harsh.

For five years Fernando VII reigned as absolute monarch of Spain. But these years were far from prosperous. In the Spanish domains in North and South America, revolutions against Spanish rule broke out, and the government had a hard time putting them down. In Spain, the government faced bankruptcy, and the army was discontent with the king. Liberals from the middle class and the army formed secret societies, such as the Freemasons, in which they plotted against the government.

Open rebellion against the government broke out in 1819, when soldiers in the seaport of Cádiz mutinied. The mutiny turned into a general insurrection that, in January and February 1820, spread to Seville, Barcelona, Saragossa, and Asturias. By March, Fernando VII was frightened enough to take a royal oath to support the Constitution of 1812. “Let us advance frankly, myself leading the way, down the constitutional path,” said the king.

For two years following the insurrection, a Liberal cortes governed Spain while forces opposed to Liberalism plotted against the government. Despite his oath to respect the constitution, Fernando VII sought ways to overthrow the cortes and reestablish absolute monarchy. The cortes’s attacks on the freedom of the Church and the practice of religion, moreover, united the clergy and lay Catholics against the government.

Prince Klemens von Metternich

The triumph of Spain’s Liberal revolution worried Metternich. He feared that if the revolution were successful in Spain, it would inspire similar movements in the rest of Europe. At a congress of the Quadruple Alliance held at Troppau in Silesia in 1820, Metternich had supported a protocol that would allow the alliance to intervene in countries whose governments had gone Liberal. Such intervention, said the protocol, should be peaceful; but it could also be “by arms, to bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Great Alliance.” Great Britain alone had opposed this protocol, while Prussia and Russia eagerly supported it. Backed by the Troppau Protocol, Metternich in 1822 called for intervention in Spain.

At another congress that met in October 1822 in Verona, Italy, the powers of the Quadruple Alliance debated whether to intervene in Spain. Great Britain continued to oppose such intervention but was again overruled by Prussia, Russia, Austria, and France. In early 1823, these powers sent separate notes to Spain’s governmental ministers, demanding that they abolish the Constitution of 1812 and restore all of Fernando VII’s kingly powers. When the Spanish ministry refused, the Quadruple Alliance prepared for war.


In the early months of 1823, a French army under the command of Louis XVIII’s nephew, the Duke of Angoulême, crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. Unlike the French forces under Napoleon, however, Angoulême’s army was greeted with praise and even support by most of the Spanish people; for the common folk of Spain either knew little about Liberalism or were hostile to it. In May, after Angoulême took Madrid, the cortes, with the king as their prisoner, fled south to Cádiz, to which the French laid siege in June. Finally, on October 1, 1823, after Fernando promised to grant them a general pardon, the revolutionaries released him and surrendered the city to the besiegers.

Yet, no sooner had Fernando VII regained power than he broke his word to his former captors. Vowing death to all opponents of his government, the king ordered the arrest of all those who had rebelled against him in 1820, who had supported the Liberal cortes, or who favored the Constitution of 1812. During the king’s purge, hundreds of Spaniards were arbitrarily arrested and then executed; many more were exiled or thrown into prison. So harsh and despotic were Fernando’s measures that they disgusted the allies who had restored him to power. But finally, Fernando achieved his goal. His persecution, for a time at least, broke the power of the Liberals in Spain.

Completed After Four Years

In 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven completed the Missa Solemnis, his setting of the Mass, which he had begun composing in 1819. Though thought by some to be one of Beethoven’s greatest works, the Missa Solemnis is not as frequently performed as his Ninth Symphony or the Eroica. Here is Beethoven’s Mass, performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and the Wiener Singverein.

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