The short reign of King Amadeo I
Next time you’re sitting in the sun, drinking your wine or a cup of tea, and ruminating on the pro’s and con’s of constitutional monarchy, as everyone does from time to time, spare a thought for King Amadeo I of Spain.
Amadeo was a young man, aged only twenty-five, in 1870 when he was called upon to be a king. As Duke of Aosta in Italy Amadeo was the founder of the House of Savoy, as King Amadeo I he was a complete outsider to Spain with its convoluted and often violent politics.
The situation that led to his accession to the Spanish throne can be traced back some forty years, to October 1830 and the birth of Isabella, the daughter of the Bourbon King Ferdinand VII by his fourth wife, Maria Cristina. Ferdinand died not long afterwards in 1833 leaving Maria Cristina as regent for Isabella until she came of age. Ferdinand had been a reactionary but his brother Don Carlos was even more so and Don Carlos disputed Isabella’s succession, claiming the throne for himself, supported by a large and militant group of followers. This opposition erupted on occasion into the Carlist Wars.
Isabella II attained her majority in 1843 at the age of thirteen. Like Queen Victoria in England she was short and dumpy and no beauty. Like Victoria, as a politically innocent young girl when she came to the throne, she was seen at first as the hope for a liberal Spain, but, unlike Victoria, Isabella she lacked a strong, well-intentioned husband. She married a Bourbon cousin who was described as “effete”, although he did produce a son, Alfonso, by her. Isabella herself was viewed as “bigoted and licentious”, although warm-hearted. She was popular with the common people, whose views of course did not count, having no political clout, but she presided over a succession of increasingly reactionary, corrupt and inefficient governments that finally resulted in the Glorious Revolution of September 1868, at which point Isabella abdicated in favour of Alfonso, who was by then eleven years old, and went into exile in France. However, young Alfonso, with all his mother’s connections and influence, was rejected by the provisional government that arose from the Revolution.
The provisional government drafted the ‘Constitution of 1869’ which, in trying to please everyone, promised to be a truly representative political system combined with a constitutional monarchy. The problem was that the government had to find an acceptable monarch, preferably a king. A return to the repressive, reactionary, strongly pro-Catholic church, Bourbon monarchy was an anathema to the Republicans and Progressives, while among royal houses of Europe there was reluctance to send anyone to sit on the troubled throne of Spain. Yet the attempt had to be made and the choice finally settled on the anti-clerical, indeed the “atheistical and masonic”, House of Savoy in Italy.
King Victor Emanuel II of Italy had two older sons, the eldest was in line to inherit the Italian crown as King Umberto I, but his second son, Amadeo, Duke of Aosta, was available and, although he was reluctant, Amadeo was persuaded by his father to accept the nomination.
Pleasure-loving Amadeo had made an arranged marriage with Maria Victoria dal Pozzo, a young woman of noble but lower birth, her great attraction being that she was extremely wealthy. But her wealth was not sufficient reason for Amadeo to become a one-woman man, he was often unfaithful. When Maria complained to her father-in-law, the King of Italy, about Amadeo’s behaviour, the king simply brushed her feelings aside and told her not to interfere with her husband’s life.
In Spain, “the strong man of the Progressives” for years had been General Juan Prim, a very able military politician and statesman, the man who led the movement that overthrew Isabella in 1868. As leader of the Progressives in the provisional government, Prim engineered the appointment of Duke Amadeo as King of Spain in the election of 16th November 1870. Unfortunately, Prim was shot by an assassin on the 28th of December and he died on the 30th, the very day that the new king entered Madrid.
By the death of Prim, Amadeo was left without his main support, he was opposed by the Catholic church, and the supporters of the Bourbon monarchy and the Carlists in the north, and he was ridiculed with the nickname of ‘King Macaroni’ by the people. Nevertheless, from the outset Amadeo tried his best to carry out his duties as a conscientious and impartial monarch, duties that included, as he saw it, the task of reading all the daily newspapers of every political persuasion in order to make up for his ignorance of Spanish life. In the practicalities of government Amadeo could rely only on the Progressives but that party was severely weakened by infighting between the various factions, which meant that no stable government could ever be formed. After eighteen months of frustrated effort another armed Carlist uprising occurred, during which even the army was divided, so, after only two years as king, without any political, economic or aristocratic bases for support, Amadeo gave up and abdicated on 11th February 1873.
His departure was followed at 10 o’clock the same night by the declaration of the First Republic, which was doomed to last only until 1874 when, in December that year, Isabella’s son Alfonso was recalled and declared King Alfonso XII of Spain.
King Amadeo I of Spain left nothing by way of a legacy, but his wife, Maria Victoria, was remembered fondly for years afterwards by the poor people of Spain, who referred to her as “our queen”. As queen in Spain, while her husband was struggling to be king, the practical and saintly Maria Victoria did much to alleviate the suffering of the poor of Madrid, providing for example a chapel, a school and a nursery for the children of washerwomen during their working hours. Using her own wealth she founded other institutions, or ‘refuges’, for poor children as well as schools and hospitals. In these good works she was joined by Amadeo, who also used his own wealth to help charitable causes.
The memory of their kindness lingered on. Some years after the abdication an English traveller was asked by a Spanish fisherman, “How are our King (meaning Amadeo) and his generous Queen?” When Maria Victoria died on 8th November 1876, aged only twenty-nine, requiems were sung for her in churches all over Spain, whereas for King Amadeo I, he came, he did his best – and he went, declaring Spain to be ungovernable. (Things have moved on a lot since then, I hasten to add.)