Sun Ra - Column for 10/21

Now I Eat Humble Pie

Let's talk about the Kings of Spain. It's good to be the King, right?

Well, not always. Let's run through some.

We're going to start with Ferdinand and Isabella. Partially because most people will recognize them, partially because they were the first monarchs who could really claim to rule basically all of Spain. In 1469, strong-willed and decisive Isabella of Castille married dopey but apparently rather attractive Ferdinand of Aragon, thereby bringing the bulk of the Iberian peninsula under a single rule. Their conquest of Granada in 1492 further strengthened their hand, as did one of history's long shots, the financing of Christopher Columbus. As it turned out, that one rather minor decision was to bring Spain wealth unheard of in Europe. Who knew?

In addition, they introduced the Holy Inquisition to Spain in 1480. Frankly, it was Isabella and her husband Ferdinand, the one with the cute legs, who set the path Spain would follow for the next two centuries. All the monarchs following them simply marched down the grooves that Isabella laid out in the late fifteenth century.

And, speaking of precedents, when Isabella died in 1504, she made her daughter Juana her heir. Juana, who is known to posterity as 'Juana la loca'. It's an open question how mad she was to start with (Isabella stipulated that she would only inherit "if she was able"), but when her husband Philip died in 1506 at the age of 28, she carried his coffin around with her for the next three years, regularly checking on the corpse to see if he had come back to life. When her father, Ferdinand (less troubled by the world in general than Isabella) finally died in 1516, although Juana was proclaimed co-ruler, it was with her son Charles (16 years old at the time), who did all of the actual ruling. He did at least continue to sign her name on things until she died in 1555.

Charles was in Spain only briefly before his grandfather Maximilian died, leaving him the Hapsburg lands in Austria as well. He bribed the various German electors, and was duly elected Holy Roman Emperor. So he took off to live in Austria.

Now, Charles was in an interesting position. On the one hand, money was starting to flow into Spain from the conquered lands in the New World at an unbelievable rate. Aztec gold and Inca silver, in such quantities that inflation became a serious problem. On the other hand, since Charles already owned Spain, Austria, chunks of Germany, the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and other areas, he figured he might as well take over the rest of Europe, too.

So for the next thirty years, he poured the silver and gold plunder of the New World into the rathole of wars all over the continent. France made a specific point of opposing his ambitions, the Turks were pushing into his Austrian lands, the protestants were just getting going in Germany and elsewhere, and most of his existing subjects revolted at one time or another. Despite his bankroll, he didn't get very far.

Long story short, despite having the largest free inflow of money in European history, Charles went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and in 1556 handed his penniless throne over to his son Philip II. Charles himself donated his favorite palace near Madrid to the church, and then went to spend the rest of his life there as a monk. Probably not a very ascetic one.

Now, Philip II only inherited part of his father's empire. The Hapsburg lands (Austria) went to Charles' brother Maximilian (another one), leaving Philip with Spain, the Netherlands, and Spanish Italy (Naples, Milan, Sicily). It was enough. During his rule he continued the Spanish traditions of European wars, heavy debt, and attempts to suppress heresy in Spain that make cutting off one's nose to spite one's face look like a work of genius.

Philip also continued the tradition of marrying people who were related to him. First he married his cousin Maria of Portugal. After her death, he married Mary Tudor of England, who was the granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, where Philip was their great-grandson. But she died before things could really solidify, so then he married Elizabeth of Valois (the daughter of the French king) to try and patch things up with the French. Unfortunately, she died as well, so to really bring things home he married Maria Anna of Austria, his brother's daughter. Yeah. Ick.

In 1598 Philip II kicks off, and leaves the kingdom to his son Philip III. Yet again we see lots of fighting in Europe for no real gain, the expulsion and persecution of suspected heretics at the cost of the Spanish economy, and the marriage of close relatives. A lot of this is because Philip III was of blatantly sub-average intelligence, and basically left the running of the country to the Duke of Parma and other lickspittle types. I guess having having your grandparents also be your great-grandparents isn't that good for the ol' noodle.

At any rate, Philip III married Margaret of Austria, who was only a second or third cousin. Inventively enough, their son, who became king in 1621, was Philip IV. Also an idiot, and a religious one. He tried marrying a princess of France, but she bore a daughter who died and then died herself. So he then married Maria Anna of Austria, a (suprise!) cousin, who bore him a son just in time for him to die at age 60 and the infant to become king.

Sadly, that child-king was the very pitiable Carlos II. All the inbreeding had finally produced a king who was severely mentally and physically retarded. Carlos II had a jaw so misshapen he could not eat solid food, could barely speak, and something wrong with his circulatory system left him in constant pain. His legs were misshapen so that he could not walk. He never left his palace, and was expected to die at any time, causing the rest of Europe to fight several wars about who would succeed him.

Perhaps out of spite, Carlos II lived (and ruled, if you could call it that) for almost forty years. He was, rather horribly, married twice, but no children were forthcoming.

Well, after this geneological train wreck was finally over, the rest of Europe fought the War of the Spanish Succession to determine which of the rival claimants to the throne would actually get it. The French "won", and put Philip V (little enough relation to the earlier Philips, thank goodness, but a grandson of Louis XIV of France) on the throne in 1700.

As a result of the War of the S.S., however, Spain had been stripped of all its European possessions - large chunks of Italy, the Netherlands, all that stuff - leaving it just Spain itself, and its American Colonies. Which were no longer producing free silver. So, although still of some importance, Spain was to sink rapidly to fourth-rate power status hereafter.

As for Philip's descendants, guess what? They start marrying their cousins all over again. A hundred years later, after seven increasingly useless kings, Napoleon takes over for a while. After he's removed, Philip V's descendants again take turns ruling an increasingly abandoned and impoverished country, until Alfonso XIII is booted in 1931 during the Spanish Civil War, and Franco ultimately establishes a Fascist dictatorship.

Well. That was uplifting, wasn't it?

Don't worry, we're not done yet.

After half a century of Fascist rule, Franco dies in 1975. In the last few years, as he was facing the necessity of choosing a successor, the conservative streak in Franco (which was, really, his only streak) emerged, and he decided that when he died, Spain should go back to having a King.

Now, although Alfonso XIII had been booted in 1931, he had certainly kept the royal line going. A bit frighteningly, he had married a granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria, but since the Spaniards had been studiously not marrying protestants (English or German) before this, she wasn't a cousin of any sort. Their son, Juan, though he was alive in 1975 (and died in 1993, at age 80), was never to become King of Spain. Franco didn't find him malleable enough. He had married a minor noblewoman, who was also not a cousin, although was probably related if you went back a few hundred years. And their son, Juan Carlos, was the man Franco picked to become King.

Juan Carlos I was thirty-seven when he acended the throne. He had been designated as Franco's successor since 1969, giving the old dictator six years to mold the young man into the ruler he wanted him to become. Conservative, traditional, authoritarian - a King to uphold the fascist Spain Franco had created.

On his accession, November 22, 1975, Juan Carlos proclaimed not only his kingship of Spain, but his plans to turn Spain into a democracy. The old man hadn't succeeded in molding him so well, after all. The first democratic election since 1936 was held in 1977. A new constitution was approved by referendum the following year. Franco was spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electrical power.

But the reactionary forces weren't quite finished. The test of any democracy is its ability to transition power. That test came for the fledgling Spanish government in 1981, when the king's conservative party (which had ruled since 1977) was to hand over power to the left-wing party which had just won a parliamentary majority. The army took exception, and on February 23, the tanks rolled. Pro-Franco officers stormed into parliament and demanded that the government be changed.

Except. At 1 am, the king appeared on national television, ordering all the troops back to their barracks, and reassuring the people that the transition of power would occur as planned, and that Spain was and would remain a democracy. The revolting officers stood down, and the coup was averted.

Since then, the parliamentary majority has come and gone for a number of parties, as it does in other democracies. None of them have remade Spain in their image, as the right-wing coup leaders feared. And Spain has never again flirted with revolution.

Spaniards love their king. Everyone in Spain who is old enough remembers that night, the night the king came on the television and saved democracy. It's an event that redefined the country - and the monarchy. Juan Carlos could have been an absolute monarch. He chose not to be. He put his rule on the line. And rather than the obedience of his people, he has their love.

Which is the most impressive thing a Spanish monarch has done in over five hundred years.

He married, by the way, a Greek princess. Which actually means a German-Dane, since the modern Greek monarchy was established in 1833 when the 17 year-old Prince Otto of Bavaria was given the Greek throne by Britain, France, and Russia. Yeah, the actual Greeks didn't have much say. Of course, they threw him out 1862, but then the British put in Prince William of Denmark as King of Greece instead, and the Greek monarchy has been substantially Danish since then.

But I'll save that for another time.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra