The Spanish Empire, often referred to as the Spanish Colonial Empire, was the first of the European empires that began to appear in the course of the Modern Age, it being one of the most important players of Europe for the remainder of the 16th, 17th, 18th and partially the 19th centuries.
This multi-limbed behemoth of a state,note the originator of the nickname "the empire where the sun never sets" for his global reach, was the largest non-continuous empire in the world until its disintegration, and remains one of the biggest in history, even without counting a period when the Portuguese Empire was dynastically assimilated to it. Some consider it the first truly global empire for controlling significant amounts of densely populated land in all of the continents.note
Even after its disappearance, its cultural influence is still very much alive. Hispanic culture forms the basis of Latin America and part of the United States, while Spanish Language is the second most widely spoken native language in the world, and almost one hundred entries in the UNESCO World and Intangible Culture Heritage lists trace back their origin to the Spanish Empire. The massive amounts of racial intermarrying happened during the Spanish expansion in America (historically called mestizaje), possibly unique in history for its scale and variety, also resulted in a relative majority of modern Latin Americans carrying at least some fraction of Spanish genetics, and to a lesser degree African and Italian genetics too.
A common misconception is that of the very adjective of colonial, something that was spoken by the English, Dutch and French about the Spanish Empire in its overseas possessions and became internalized for the next centuries until today. The proper term of colony (which had changed its meaning from a neutral term to the derogative and negative conception of now) was never officially given to the territory in America, instead they were referred to as viceroyalties and kingdoms, essentially extensions from mainland rather than lands subjected to it, hence the need of Viceroys to administrate the territory. European territories of the empire, like Naples and later Portugal, were ruled by Viceroys the same exact way.
The very term "Spanish Empire" is actually an exonym given by the English and French, which was, again, adopted only informally and very late into its history (for most of its tenure, the title of empire was reserved for the Holy Roman Empire, which coincidentally was briefly co-ruled with Spain at one point). Its official term was the Kingdom of Spain, as referred in this article, although in recent times the alternate name of "Hispanic Monarchy" has become fashionable too on account on the role played by its Hispanic-American lands and subjects in its history.
Historically, the Spanish Empire could be considered the public enemy of the Early Modern Age, having warred against almost every nation and culture in the world worthy to war against at the time. It was in pretty much unending conflicts against France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and ultimately itself, which expanded to Portugal and the Netherlands after those seceded from Spain, and then expanded further to Sweden and several German and Italian states during the various European Wars, not to mention Spain's own colonial battles, which included motley clashes against Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asians and many American indigenous tribes. France eventually became an ally with the rise of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty, so the longest and most regarded archnemesis was ultimately The British Empire, which in its beginnings used to try and divest Spain of its American gold, and later expanded to multiple attempts to snatch land of their overseas territories.
Despite this long Rogues Gallery, the Spanish Empire was mostly capable to defend its various lands and colonies, balancing minimal territorial losses with steady expansions, but a mix of inner and outer troubles shattered it almost completely during the Napoleonic Wars, after which it lost the last remnants of its empire the next century.
The Catholic Monarchs reformed deeply their twin kingdoms in every possible stat and turned them into the next great Christian power, conquering the last Muslim strongholds in the peninsula and incidentally making Iberia the horizon of a new world when a certain Christopher Columbus made a big discovery at the west. While the nascent Spanish Empire started expanding through America, so it did in Europe, conquering Sicily, Naples and several African port cities, often at the expense of their largest regional enemy, the knightly nation of France. Through cutting-edge military science and even shrewder political marriages with the rest of Europe, Castile and Aragon rose to hegemony and came to fill symbolically the niche left by the Byzantine Empire after the recent conquest of Constantinople to the hands of the Muslim Ottomans.
A series of successional clashes, hard enough to almost break apart Castile and Aragon, changed all of this landscape by subsuming the House of Trastámara into the House of Habsburg, a regal and ambitious Germanic family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire and had acted as northern allies up to the point. The Spanish Habsburg dynasty, inaugurated by the emperor king Charles V, took the Catholic Monarchs' aspirations much farther, first desiring to make all of Europe an unified block against Islam, and failing this due to the project's sheer impossibility, trying to secure the rule of Catholicism against both Islam and the quickly spreading Protestant Reformation. Those wars would consume voraciously the resources brought by the Spanish expansion in America, where the great Mesoamerican and Peruvian civilizations were assimilated through diplomacy, strategy and mass intermarrying.
Despite its continuous state of war, the Spanish Empire entered an age of intellectual, literary, scientific and philosophical splendor known as Spanish Golden Age, which went to set much of the foundations over which The Enlightenment would be later built. Highly humanistic laws were issued to bring the Amerindian indigenous and the ever-increasing mestizo population into this political and cultural sphere, achieving advances that would only resonate in the rest of Europe centuries later. Most of this, however, was all but erased from modern western pop culture through the continuous propaganda work of the empire's antagonists, resulting in the Spanish Black Legend, a layer of historiography that still paints the Spanish Empire as a genocidal, backwards and bloodthirsty predecessor to Nazi Germany.
The Habsburgs' Quixotic enterprises occupied the Spanish Empire for the 16th and 17th centuries, at one point assimilating the Portuguese Empire and finally unifying the Iberian Peninsula, only to lose it again when the excess of war and megalomaniac management caused multiple rebellions, with Portugal breaking away. Eventually, worn by two centuries of neverending war against the whole known world, the Spanish Empire dropped his momentum at the same time other European countries caught up, ultimately losing its hegemony and royal house to the France of Louis XIV. With the Habsburg dynasty dying off, the new French house of Bourbon arrived in Spain after a new war and started working to keep Spain afloat in the international landscape, although the family's proneness to both figurative and literal insanity brought unique problems.
Through its sheer size, resources and military talent pool, the Spanish Empire managed to remain a top player in the Europe of the Enlightenment by investing in a policy of defensive neutrality, in a time where France, having proved to be an unstable ally, was losing the first place to an increasingly complicated checkboard. This changed with the arrival of Napoléon Bonaparte, who promptly submitted half of Europe. Spain picked the strongest side and begrudgingly joined him, but the country's inner political conflicts, caused by the despotic King Ferdinand VII, convinced Napoleon of the need to hijack the Spanish Empire by force to be safer. The result was utter ruin for both sides, as Spain exploded in Napoleon's face, opening a war theater that accelerated his fall, but at the same time shattered from inside, creating a myriad of American countries molded by various loyalties and international interests.
Reduced to second rate for good, Spain held onto Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and a set of islands until the very end of the 19th century, when they were taken by the United States, much to the depression of Spanish academics of the time (the popularly called Generation of '98). This was the point in which the Spanish Empire as a concept was finally buried.
Reigned: 11 December 1474 — 26 November 1504 (Isabella, Castile); 15 January 1475 — 26 November 1504 (Fernando, Castile); 20 January 1479 — 23 January 1516 (Fernando, Aragon)
Parents: King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal (Isabella); King John II of Aragon and Navarre, and Juana Enríquez (Fernando)
Consorts: (1) Each other (1469–1504); (2 [for Fernando]) Germaine of Foix (1506–1516)
Nickname: la Católica ("the Catholic")
Unified the Peninsula (minus Portugal), undermined the power of aristocrats, renewed the army and put an end to both the Reconquista and the Spanish Middle Ages. Also, they funded a certain Christopher Columbus for an extravagant new route to the Indias.
Why were the Spanish and Portuguese the ones to first sail to the New World? Why not France, England, The Ottoman Empire, or even beyond that, Ming China or the Mughals?
The reasons behind that are what is called amongst historians the Iberian Privilege: in the XIV century, a short cold snap of the European climate affected all of northern Europe, producing shortages of food and famine across those regions and overpopulation of the cities; then came the Black Death, which went from northern Italy across all of the trade network of Europe.
You can guess what happened to the people of the North when plague came with famine.
But the Iberian Peninsula, being in the Mediterranean and at the end of the land roads of trade, didn't suffer that much from the population crisis, instead, as the Reconquista continued, the Iberian kingdoms found themselves richer and with more land. With an undiminished population, their growth was secured. What's more, their position meant they were in permanent touch with the Mediterranean and Northern nautical techniques.
Then came the 15th century, this century was marked with the infamous HundredYearsWar between the French and English that started the last century, the inner conflicts that had wracked the Holy Roman Empire, the rise of the Ottomans at the east and the beginning of the isolationist policy of China.
By the latter half of the fifteenth century, the then Queen Isabella chose to marry King Fernando, which was reported to be a love match between the two, and with it, the crowns of the kingdom of Castile, largest in Hispania, and the kingdom of Aragon, joint with the kingdom of Naples. This union, while it suffered a rebellion, was able to finish the Reconquista once and for all, annexing the territory of Granada, today southern Spain.
Due to their crushing of the opposition and their admirable coordination and teamwork, the Catholic Monarchs were able to wield a great amount power in practice, not just in title. Their general Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, known as the "Great Captain", cemented their influence by the sword, setting the blueprint for the first early modern armies; Spain thus became a prime power that was strong economically, diplomatically and militarily.
The monarchs chose good marriages for their children, deciding to marry their daughter, Juana, to Felipe "the Handsome", a noble of the House of Habsburg whose heritage included the territories once held by the duchy of Burgundy (from which the Spanish used their flags) and the Habsburg possessions. Another of their children was Catherine of Aragon, who was married off to Prince Arthur, eldest son of King Henry VII of England. When Arthur died, Catherine married Arthur's brother, who later ascended the English throne as Henry VIII… which didn't turn out so well.
After the fall of Constantinople, the Catholic Kings financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who was rejected by the Portuguese, to find land that would become a part of the crown and that which he would become a direct Viceroy. They later took this last part back when Columbus started enslaving the natives, which Isabella had specifically forbidden.
Reigned: 26 November 1504 – 12 April 1555 (Castile); 23 January 1516 – 12 April 1555 (Aragon)
Parents: King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile
Consort: Felipe I of Castile
Nickname: la Loca ("the Mad")
Her reign saw the roots of an ill-fated alliance with England and the HRE, but is best remembered for her going apeshit crazy and getting imprisoned in a tower afterwards by her late husband, who is…
Felipe I of Castile
Reigned: 27 June 1506 – 25 September 1506
Parents: Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy
Consort: Joanna of Castile
Nicknames: the Handsome; the Fair
Brief as he was, and never getting to reign alone, is just remembered for being a jerk and totally disregarding the queen in his endless affairs. Also, much to the monarchs' dismay, he made a friendly turn to France, their traditional enemies, which made Fernando his Arch-Enemy (Isabel died shortly after) and caused much turmoil.
While he's classified as one of the Trastámara monarchs by marriage, Felipe was actually of the prestigious Habsburg family, being the only son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. However, as Felipe predeceased his father, he never served as Emperor himself.
After Felipe died, Fernando II made himself Castile's regent and, before dying, left the kingdom of Aragon and Naples as inheritance to the kingdom of Castile, thereby joining the two countries into a single power under a single person who would act as Juana's regent and later co-monarch and heir to the throne…
Reigned: 14 March 1516 – 16 January 1556 (co-monarch with Juana I until 12 April 1555)
Parents: King Felipe I and Queen Juana I
Consort: Isabella of Portugal
Nickname: the Emperor
That person was Juana and Felipe's son Charles, Archduke of Austria, and eventually the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope himself. Having inherited Spain and its empire in the Americas through his mother and maternal grandparents and the Holy Roman Empire and its possessions through his paternal grandfather Maximilian I, Carlos I, alias Emperor Charles V, made for an unprecedentedly powerful monarch in European history.
At the moment of his ascension, the Spanish conquistadores Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro began to enter into the territories held by the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire. They then took advantage of the fragmentary state of the two empires and managed, by turning the very native population against their overlords and playing Altar Diplomacy when necessary, to conquer most of modern México and Perú in two campaigns.
Charles arrived in Spain in 1517 without a grasp of the local culture, society or language, and faced quite a few rebellions for it, which he crushed promptly. He eventually adapted quite well and gained the support of the people, helped by his powerful presence and chameleonic charisma (he spoke many languages and was persuasive in all of them). Spaniards revered him as a sort of new Roman emperor, which was exactly what he wanted to be.
Charles's ambition was to unify Europe against Islam like in the good old times, but failed because he was just about the only European ruler who actually wanted that (even the Popes were comfortable with the status quo). His biggest adversary was Francis I of France, the second most powerful person in Europe, whom Charles defeated many times without ever making him understand the necessity to join forces. At one point he had Francis captured in battle and let him out naively with the promise of teaming up as he wished, but Francis didn't fulfill it; the King of France would rather join the Ottomans.
Protestants became an even bigger problem when Martin Luther nailed his theses under his nose, as like most Habsburgs, Charles was a devout Catholic, even although he sometimes came to the extent of waging war himself against the Catholic Church to enforce his ideals. Cue the beginning of the endless religious wars funded with the extensive resources of the Spanish Empire. To his credit, he eventually came to realize that the Protestants were there to stay, and let them be, conceding some religious freedoms to prevent future wars, but it didn't work, and this attitude didn't stick with his descendants (nor with the Protestants').
Towards the last part of his reign, he also became preoccupied with how to rule fairly his American subjects and whether the Spanish expansion had an ethical basis to begin with. The main intellectual school in Spain, the School of Salamanca, was called by him to solve the dilemma, resulting in laws of protection of the natives being further developed.
He was an extremely hands-on kind of ruler, who spent all of his reign traveling throughout his territories and trying to solve his problems personally, which sometimes involved taking up weapons and leading armies himself. This took a toll on his physical and mental health: at the end of his life, completely burned out and tired of watching dreams shatter, he abdicated his (many) thrones to his son and brother and retired to a monastery in Cortés' and Pizarro's homeland.
Reigned: 16 January 1556 – 13 September 1598
Parents: King Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor, and Isabella of Portugal
Spouse: Maria Manuela of Portugal (1543–1545)
Consorts: (1) Queen Mary I of England (1554–1558); (2) Elisabeth of Valois (1559–1568); (3) Anna of Austria (1570–1580)
Nickname: el Prudente ("the Prudent")
As the religious wars escalated into political wars, Philip was married off to Mary Tudor as a prince to attempt an alliance with England, but it didn't end well.
After becoming king, Philip turned out to be even more of a Catholic zealot than his father, only without his diplomatic abilities. He entangled himself in multiple wars of various levels of avoidability against the Dutch, the English and the French, all while keeping the front against the Ottomans. In the process, he made Habsburg Spain a pariah state among Protestants and Catholics alike, resulting in the stigma of the Spanish Black Legend, and initiated a national decline whose effects similarly lasted centuries.
He still won the Italian Wars, annexed the Portuguese Empire (forming what some academics call the Iberian Union), dealt a massive naval blow to the Ottomans, was kind of a humanist who ruled fairly his overseas territories, and gave a big push to culture and science all around the Spanish Empire, thanks to which he is not completely remembered as a hack in Spain. Rather on the opposite, many Spaniards have recently romanticized him as a timeless symbol of the empire, as strongly as media from Protestant countries pictures him as an evil, ignorant tyrant.
A deeply brainy individual, as well as a sort of amateur religious mystic, he had the biggest private library in Europe, practiced Alchemy, collected holy relics as his personal totems, and allegedly built his massive Escorial Palace to seal a hellgate, filling it with Catholic art (incidentally, all kings of Spain after him are buried there). Unlike his father, he never went to war personally and preferred to get the work done by people with the right talents, and he truly had an impressive cadre of those, including names like The Duke of Alba, Álvaro de Bazán and Alexander Farnese — all of whom he squeezed to death with his obsessive war efforts.
The archipelago of the Philippines was named in his honor and conquered during his reign, becoming a point of contact and trade with China and Japan. A grand plan to ally with the Japanese to conquer China and expand throughout Asia was considered, but in a rare moment of pacifism (and common sense), he discarded it.
Reigned: 13 September 1598 – 31 March 1621
Parents: King Felipe II and Anna of Austria
Consort: Margaret of Austria
Nickname: the Pious
Not the son Felipe II would have desired. Being weak-willed, slow in decision-making and with little to no interest in governing affairs, he re-popularized the custom of the valido, in which command was delegated in a (badly) handpicked minister while the king went around partying. Clearly had issues and was probably a ludomaniac.
No large-scale wars were waged by Spain during most of his reign, giving birth to the term Pax Hispanica, although the lack of a strong leadership caused some mess anyway. He also had some colourful diplomacy with Japan. Less nicely, he expelled moriscos or Christianized descendants of Muslims, which was sort of an overreaction against secret collaborators of the Ottomans that hid among them.
In his final years he did some real effective ruling on his own, although too little and too late. He is generally considered a terrible if well-meant ruler.
Reigned: 31 March 1621 – 17 September 1665
Parents: King Felipe III and Margaret of Austria
Consorts: (1) Elisabeth of France (1615–1644); (2) Mariana of Austria (1649–1665)
Nicknames: the Great; el Rey Planeta ("the Planet King")
Highly cultured and ambitious, he saw himself as a reformer and dreamed of giving Spain back the status it had lost with his grandfather's wars and his father's mismanagement. For the better part of his reign, he was in a tremendously complicated relationship (no, they were both straight, so far as we know) with his own valido the Count Duke of Olivares, which historians still debate whether it was ultimately a good or a bad thing.
Under Olivares' advice, he re-initiated several wars and tried to extend the war effort from Castile to the whole realm, which prompted rebellions in Portugal and Catalonia that led to the former's independence and the latter's annexation to France. Catalonia was re-taken, albeit cut to a size, but Portugal wasn't. As a result, and with the premature death of his military genius brother, Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, Spain lost its eminent seat to the emergent France of Louis XIV, Philip's son-in-law.
A king of many contrasts. He cultivated a stoic image for himself, although it backfired and gained him the derisive nickname el Rey Pasmado (roughly "the Stunned King"). He was also famous for being a lover of the arts, befriending writers and painters, and not any less of women, having about 40 lovers himself. He was also somehow a fervent Catholic, and towards the end of his life suffered a existential crisis for having failed in his life dreams.
From his very day, historical opinions of his skill are all over the place. Some consider him a better-disguised ersatz of his father, while others view him as at least a decently competent ruler who just lived in circumstances way beyond his control. His courtiers seem to have considered him a great monarch that lacked self-confidence and got very bad advice.
Reigned: 17 September 1665 – 1 November 1700
Parents: King Felipe IV and Mariana of Austria
Consorts: (1) Marie Louise d'Orléans (1679–1689); (2) Maria Anna of Neuburg (1689–1700)
Nickname: el Hechizado ("the Bewitched")
Born with serious deformities both physically and maybe mentally, he was sterile and not very able to reign. Apparently, he was tragically aware of how much of a failure he was regarded as, to the point he believed himself to be cursed. Spain lost a few minor wars under him, although in turn he and his ministers managed to hold it all together and pull an impressive economical refloating, which gets often overlooked in history due to his, well, conditions.
His death caused a fracas, as after much speculation and vacillation in the last years of his life, he tried to to leave his throne to Duke Philippe of Anjou, grandson of Carlos's half-sister Maria Theresa, who had married King Louis XIV of France. However, Archduke Charles of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI), a great-grandson of Felipe III, objected on grounds that Felipe IV's will stipulated that the Spanish throne would always stay in Habsburg hands, and tried to claim the throne as "Carlos III."
These competing claims resulted in the War of the Spanish Succession, which was fought between Louis XIV's France and his allies on one side, and a multinational coalition led by Charles VI which included England and Scotland (later the newly formed United Kingdom), Portugal, the Netherlands, and Prussia on the other.
The House of Bourbon
Reigned: 1 November 1700 – 15 January 1724; 6 September 1724 – 9 July 1746
Parents: Louis, Grand Dauphin of France,note and Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria
Consorts: (1) Maria Luisa Gabriella of Savoy (1701–1714); (2) Elisabeth Farnese (1714–1746)
Nickname: el Animoso ("the Spirited")
The War of the Spanish Succession ended with the Peace of Utrecht, in which Philippe of Anjou was recognized as King of Spain, and Habsburg rule in Spain came to an end. But in exchange, Philippe forfeited his and his descendants' places in the French royal line of succession, and his French relations likewise renounced any claims they had to the Spanish throne. Thus the Bourbons would rule both lands, but a union of the Spanish and French crowns would be off the table for good (the Bonapartes' attempts notwithstanding).
And so Philippe, now King Felipe V, arrived in a Spain ruined by the war. He hoped to revive the country and managed some effective reforms, but he was prone to manic depression and was not a terribly skilled ruler, so he tended to be steered around by either his ministers or his ambitious wife, Isabel de Farnesio, none of whom always had Spain's best interests in mind.
At peace, he unified the various states of the empire in a single nation. But in doing so, he famously suppressed medieval rights in Aragon (namely, in Catalonia and Valencia) as punishment for siding with Charles IV and the Holy Roman Empire during the war, which started a long tradition of animosity between the Bourbons and those regions. The town of Xàtiva in Valencia, for instance, was besieged and burned by Felipe during the war and for a time renamed San Felipe, so to this day, his portrait hangs upside-down in a local museum.
At war, Felipe was a bit of a Leeroy Jenkins and had a rather mixed record, although one thing he had in his favor was the upgrade of their naval resources, including commanders like the mythical Blas de Lezo and monumental privateers like Miguel Enríquez and Amaro Pargo, who rose to N.G.O. Superpower levels each.
Either way, his mind collapsed earlier into his reign, and he went completely insane, in colourful and tragicomical ways. He seemed to recognize this, so in 1724, he abdicated to his seventeen-year-old son Luis. But Luis wound up dying within a few months (see below), and his second son, Fernando, was only ten years old, so a reluctant Felipe was restored to the throne for another twenty-two years of barely functional madness.
Although he has some triumphs in his resumé, he is generally considered a ineffectual, unfit king who was handed a job way over his head and sanity. His 45-year reign remains the longest of any Spanish monarch.
Reigned: 15 January 1724 – 31 August 1724
Parents: King Felipe V and Maria Luisa Gabriella of Savoy
Consort: Louise Élisabeth d'Orléans
Nicknames: the Beloved; the Liberal
You would be hard-pressed to find any reference to him in general history books, as he didn't last a year as a king, dying at the tender age of 17, and little is known about him personally. He seems to have been a pleasant, charming, but subdued fellow, and some have speculated he was bisexual.
His queen Louise Élisabeth was much more memorable for being batshit insane, to the point a disturbed Luis arranged for her to be institutionalized. She later begged for his forgiveness and started behaving a bit better upon her return. When Luis fell ill with smallpox, she went out of her way to care for him. He still died, though.
After his death, Felipe V annulled Louise's marriage due to her unpopularity and since his second son, Fernando, was only ten years old, he was forced to take the crown again, insane as he was.
Reigned: 9 July 1746 – 10 August 1759
Parents: King Felipe V and Maria Luisa Gabriella of Savoy
Consort: Barbara of Portugal
Nicknames: el Prudente ("the Prudent" or "the Learned"); el Justo ("the Just")
Not very often remembered, if at all. Didn't wage wars, nor alliances, nor anything. His reign was mostly domestic and peaceful, which, apart for being unusual for a European country of the time, doesn't grant many pages in history books.
Terribly depressive due to an imprisoned early life, he also died (guess what) completely insane when his beloved Portuguese wife passed away, but up to that point he was a mostly flawless ruler, as seen in his nickname. He was obsessed with making the Spanish Empire strong and modern, but neutral in other countries' wars, and for the most part succeeded.
Reigned: 10 August 1759 – 14 December 1788
Parents: King Felipe V and Elisabeth Farnese
Consort: Maria Amalia of Saxony
Nicknames: the Enlightened; el Mejor Alcalde de Madrid ("the Best Mayor of Madrid"); el Político ("the Politician")
Duke of Parma turned King of Naples turned King of Spain. Competent and pragmatical, as well as experienced thanks to his successive jobs, he continued his brother Ferdinand's work and revitalized the empire in the style of The Enlightenment. He also followed his policy of defensive neutrality, if less so, and endured a couple of failed war enterprises he was forced to wage, although he managed to bounce back every time.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Carlos was a soundly healthy, charismatic and peaceful fellow of many talents, if also ugly and a bit weird. Interestingly, several points of his life mirror those of Carlos I, such as his devotion to his wife (and grief over her death afterwards), his passage by different thrones, his initiative and political ability, his unusual looks, and his stints as a military leader whenever he needed it. And just as Carlos I is seen as the greatest of the Spanish Habsburgs, Carlos III is regarded as the greatest of the Spanish Bourbons.
He conquered Naples easily and made it a small but strong kingdom, and he's still well-regarded in the history of Italy because he respected their independence and didn't try to merge Naples into Spain again when he ascended to the Spanish throne (some Italians back then even called for him to keep conquering all of Italy from their various foreign rulers). As the King of Spain, although few Americans remember him, he was also a vital support of The American Revolution, if begrudgingly so given that he didn't want to set an example for his own viceleroyalties.
One his interests was in urban development, which led to him rebuilding most of Madrid into the neo-Classical style for which it is now known. He built much of current Spain in other ways, including its current flag and anthem.
Despite his great prestige and few flaws, or perhaps because of this, he doesn't have much presence in media. Spaniards from The '80s might know him better due to a certain song of folk rock band Suburbano.
Reigned: 14 December 1788 – 19 March 1808
Parents: King Carlos III and Maria Amalia of Saxony
Consort: Maria Luisa of Parma
Nickname: el Cazador ("the Hunter")
A Kindhearted Simpleton, as well as the second time a great king had a completely unworthy successor, he was more interested in clocks than politics. Too bad The French Revolution and, later, a certain Napoléon Bonaparte were knocking into the door while his own scheming son wanted his head on a spear (although at least he ended better than his French cousin, who oddly enough was also an amateur clockmaker).
Possibly best remembered for authorizing The Balmis Expedition, the first global medical campaign in history, to vaccinate all of his empire against smallpox.
Under pressure from Napoleon, he abdicated in 1808, and the Spanish throne briefly went to his son, Fernando VII, but just a few months into Fernando's reign, Napoleon ousted him too, giving Spain to…
The House of Bonaparte
Reigned: 6 June 1808 – 11 December 1813
Parents: Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino
Consort: Marie Julie Clary
Nicknames: the Intruder; Pepe Botella ("Joe Bottle")
Imposed by his brother, Napoléon Bonaparte. A relatively well-meaning ruler, he actually tried to liberalize the country in part, and tried to avoid becoming a Puppet King for his brother. Unfortunately for him, José, or rather, Joseph Bonaparte, was disliked by just about everyone, from Spain's colonies in the western hemisphere (a number of which declared independence so they wouldn't have him as king) to peninsular society. This widespread discontent exploded into a front of The Napoleonic Wars called the Peninsular War.
Despite his efforts, Joseph himself had little say in the Peninsular War – while the French commanders fighting it were technically under his command, they really answered to Napoleon. Fending off the Spanish insurgents wound up siphoning French resources, which put France at a disadvantage by the time Napoleon's Russian campaign kicked off, which in turn led to the downfall of the whole first French Empire. Hence the Peninsular War also being called "the Spanish Ulcer."
Went into history under the derisive nickname of Pepe Botella ("Joe Bottle"), although despite his problems holding onto Spain, he didn't really have a drinking problem. This reputation probably came from a royal decree liberalizing trade on alcoholic beverages, which, coupled with his unpopularity, caused many to assume he was a hard drinker himself.
After a British/Spanish/Portuguese victory at Vitoria decisively won the Peninsular War, Joseph abdicated in 1813 and fled back to France, thus returning the Spanish throne to…
First Restoration of the House of Bourbon
Reigned: 19 March 1808 – 6 May 1808; 11 December 1813 – 29 September 1833
Parents: King Carlos IV and Maria Luisa of Parma
Spouse: Maria Antonia of Naples and Sicily (1802–1806)
Consorts: (1) Maria Isabel of Portugal (1816-1818); (2) Maria Josepha Amalia of Saxony (1819–1829); (3) Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies (1829–1833)
Nicknames: el Deseado ("the Desired"); el Rey Felón ("the Felon King")
Having been an icon of Spanish resistance during the Peninsular War, there was a sense of optimism in Spain as Fernando reclaimed his crown that the country would improve now that it was free of the Bonaparte yoke.
Fernando promptly crushed the Spanish liberals, abolished the constitution his Spanish supporters approved on his absence, empowered Latin American revolutionaries by denying the overseas territories the seats on the parliament the aforementioned constitution granted them, stomped either intentional or unintentionally on all other solutions to the problem, inadvertently granted independence to the revolutionaries for good by upsetting the military intended to fight them and getting those to revolt against him, and swore the previously abolished constitution when they managed to corner him only to secretly scheme with foreign authoritarian powers to crush them once and for all.
After all of this, which brought the destruction of the Spanish Empire in all possible senses, followed ten years known as the "Ominous Decade".
On his deathbed, he changed his last will so his three-year-old daughter could reign (a very liberal standpoint, for a king that fiercely clung to absolutist monarchy) instead of his even-more-authoritarian brother, Don Carlos. It's widely assumed that he did this out of pure spite toward his brother for having coveted the throne long before Ferdinand vacated it, which would be in keeping with his general pettiness. This gesture would result in supporters of Don Carlos becoming the Carlists and advocating for him and his descendants being placed on the throne (more on that later).
By the end of Fernando's reign, the few remnants of Spain were falling apart, its prestige was in tatters, a civil war was brewing, and Spain (and arguably the Hispanosphere as a whole) never quite recovered from his reign. Not surprisingly, most consider Fernando VII to be Spain's worst king, if not the worst in western history.
Reigned: 29 September 1833 – 30 September 1868
Parents: King Fernando VII and Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies
Consort: Francisco de Asís, Duke of Cádiz
Nicknames: la Reina Castiza ("the Traditional Queen"); la de los Tristes Destinos ("The Queen of Sad Fate")
Crowned as a child, Isabella was married to a gay man - who was also her double first cousin - that she had no sympathy for.
Her reign was marked by a succession of civil wars known as the Carlist Wars, which were waged by the supporters of her father's brother, Infante Carlos. These wars forced her mother, and then herself, to rely on the liberals her father so fiercely hated to stand on the throne as sleazy politicians turned into the office - and, allegedly, her bed.
It is commonly regarded that she started as an Spoiled Brat who didn't quite have a grasp on how to rule a country and relied - quite effectively - on the military as chancellors and advisers, as well as, well, military leaders against her enemies. As she grew, she was stuck in a loveless marriage and got fat, and was taken advantage of by said sleazy politicians who saw her need for affection, sometimes through sex, as an opportunity to gain power and influence, which gathered a general mockery from the population as her popularity decreased through - rightfully - perceived institutional corruption until she was finally kicked out of the throne by 1868, and fled to France.
While in exile, Isabella was forced to renounce her dynastic rights in favour of her son, the future Alfonso XII. After Alfonso became king, she was allowed back into Spain, but was barred from spending much time in Madrid and spent much of the rest of her life in Paris.
The House of Savoy
Reigned: 16 November 1870 – 11 February 1873
Parents: King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and Adelaide of Austria
Consort: Maria Vittoria dal Pozzo (1867–1876)
Spouse: Maria Letizia Bonapartenote (1888–1890)
Nicknames: the Knight-King; the Elected
After Isabella II was deposed, debate about who the king of Spain might be started a controversy which even bled into the international sphere with a war between France and Prussia. The Parliament eventually decided Amadeo, from the family that successfully had united Italy, would be a nice king. This option was strongly supported by prestigious general Juan Prim.
Sadly, Prim was murdered shortly before Amadeo arrived to Spain, depriving Amadeo from much needed advice, and the new king was received with utter contempt. They mocked him endlessly, openly and in front of him (what with celebrating a parade for the new king and filling the front rows with the ugliest, oldest prostitutes they could find) when not blatantly ignoring him, belittling him as unmanly or just plain bullying him.
With all this happening, he (not unreasonably) decided that Spain was ungovernable, and promptly abdicated and fled back to Italy. Chaos ensued.
The Second Restoration of House Bourbon
Reigned: 29 December 1874 – 25 November 1885
Parents: Francisco de Asís, Duke of Cádiz, and Queen Isabella II
Consorts: (1) María de las Mercedes of Orléans (1878–1878); (2) Maria Christina of Austria (1879–1885)
Nickname: el Pacificador ("the Peacemaker")
Once Spain had fallen into utter chaos, he arrived with a high popularity to boot, defeating the Carlist Pretender, the self-proclaimed "Carlos VII," in the Third Carlist War. He wound up taking the name Alfonso XII, with his regnal number alluding to eleven kings of Asturias, Léon, and Castile that had been named Alfonso before Spain was united (and thus not appearing in this list).
His new regime was engineered by Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, who was a well known Anglophile and designed a parliamentary system akin to that of the United Kingdom — with the exception that Cánovas expected little from the Spanish population and was doubtful they would be civilized enough to implement a full democracy without civil unrest arising. So he arranged with local hicks known as caciques for the falsification of election results so "elected governments" could be stable and predictable. The result was a manufactured two-party system, with Cánovas's Conservative Party and Práxedes Mateo Sagasta's Liberal Party taking turns in power every four years, while keeping undesirable factions (namely, PSOE, the Socialist Party) out of the system.
Alfonso was well liked, but unfortunately fell ill with tuberculosis and died young from dysentery at 27, mere days before his birthday and with only two daughters. His wife was pregnant, and six months later, his posthumous son was born and became king as Alfonso XIII, with a long regency.
Reigned: 17 May 1886 – 14 April 1931
Parents: King Alfonso XII and Maria Christina of Austria
Consort: Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg
Nickname: el Africano ("The African")note
By the time the Spanish-American War kicked off, Cánovas had been murdered the year before the conflict started and Sagasta took off every responsibility for the humiliating defeat, dying in 1903. Alfonso XII died prematurely and the young king was actually too young to rule over the crisis (as in, when Alfonso XII died, Alfonso XIII was still in his mother's womb).
As if this was not sad enough for him, the two-party system was steadily falling apart once their masterminds had passed on and their successors lacked both charisma and political skills to keep it. The impact the defeat against the United States had on the population further eroded the establishment. There was a bizarre plan to invade and annex Portugal, hoping to capitalize on Iberist movements that had emerged out of the sorry state of both countries, but it also fell through (the liberals only wanted to do it peacefully). And it only got worse from there.
At request of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Spain held an international summit between France, Germany, the United Kingdom and others in Algeciras, Andalusia in 1906 which actually prevented World War I for the next 9 years.
After that, Spain got interested in the colonisation of Northern and Southern Morocco, which was implemented with extreme prejudice (hence Alfonso's sobriquet, "the African"), and resulted in an unprecedented bloodshed.
Crime skyrocketed, and benefits from commerce due to Spain's neutrality in World War I didn't translate into a better living conditions for workers, which led to a bloodbath in Catalonia. Spain's North African adventures triggered a further crisis in 1921, when Manuel Silvestre led a large but poorly-equipped army into Morocco's Rif Mountains; they were massacred by Abd el-Krim's rebels at the Battle of Anual, initiating the Rif War.
This combination of military disasters and economic hardship destabilized the Spanish government. Spanish governments lasted mere days, and the situation was so desperate that the King rallied the military in 1923, which led to a dictatorship that year under General Miguel Primo de Rivera, the same year a certain Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy.
Primo de Rivera accomplished most of his stated goals by cutting crime, striking seriously Abd-el-Krim rebels in the Moroccan campaign, and patching social welfare issues, as well as implementing progressive measures that nobody remembers (such as putting women in political charges). He also tied an improbable Enemy Mine with the top of the PSOE (Socialist Party) after those gave his dictatorship the benefit of doubt. However, in the process they made enemies of the CNT (anarcho-syndicalists), the PCE (Communist Party), and the whole of the elites in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, who turned to nationalism. And then, in 1929, The Great Depression finished him.
Primo de Rivera was forced to resign, but his soiled reputation was dragging the crown's reputation down with it, and in 1931, an election gave a majority to left-leaning and republican parties, and Alfonso chose to leave the country in order to prevent a civil war from breaking out. It didn't work.
The Second Spanish Republic was established, but it didn't last either.
In his exile, the deposed Alfonso was involved in a few anti-republican plots that went nowhere. His two eldest sons renounced their places in the line of succession. In 1941, not long before his death in Rome, he himself relinquished his claim to the throne to his third son, Juan (more on that later).
The Third Restoration of House Bourbon
Juan Carlos I
Reigned: 22 November 1975 – 19 June 2014
Parents: Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, and Princess María de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies
Consort: Sophia of Greece and Denmark
In 1947, Franco had declared Spain was a kingdom again, but being as he didn't like any of the claimants (particularly Juan, the heir to Alfonso XIII's throne after his elder brothers renounced their rights, and whom he considered too liberal even though he tried to fight on the Nationalist side during the war), he held off his decision until he picked Juan's eldest son in 1969, considering him to be the perfect tool to continue his regime after his death.
However, Juan Carlos was shrewd enough to know which side he should pick, and for a long time he had buttered Franco making him believe he would just allow things to keep up while he planned for the restoration of democracy. Finally, in November 1975, Franco died (and, yes, he is still dead) and he was crowned as Juan Carlos I.
Initially, he was not very popular, as he was still seen as pretty much Franco with a new face, and the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, famously claimed that he would be nicknamed "The Brief".
Instead, with the support of newly-picked Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, Juan Carlos managed to ensure the Francoist parliament would vote itself out of existence, all political parties were legalized (even the Communists, in a tricky moment where the military leadership nearly rose again) and eventually elections (the first in more than forty years) were called for Constitutional Courts. The Constitution was accepted in referendum by a majority of the Spanish people, and a new democratic system was finally implemented.
Then, in 1981, a group of Civil Guard men invaded the Congress during the voting on who should replace Suárez (who had recently resigned) as Prime Minister, with the intention of eventually restoring the dictatorship, while a general sent the tanks into the streets and tried to convince others to follow. Then the King appeared on national TV, wearing his uniform as Captain General of the Armies (the highest rank in the Spanish Army) and ordered the Armed Forces to support the democratic system. The coup was defeated soon, and Santiago Carrillo (yes, the same guy as before) was heard saying "God Save the King!"
During the next years, he would be one of Spain's foremost representatives in foreign countries, while several Prime Ministers (after Adolfo Suárez came Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo (1981-82), Felipe González (1982-1996), José María Aznar (1996-2004), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-2011), Mariano Rajoy (2011-2018) and Pedro Sánchez (2019-?)) held the reigns of the government. In 2007, during the Hispanoamerican (Spain, Portugal and the parts of America that were colonies of both) Conference, he had a most famous moment. While Zapatero was speaking, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela started to interrupt him, calling the previous Spanish Prime Minister, Aznar, a "fascist" and more. Fed-up, the King shouted at him "¿Por qué no te callas?" (Why won't you shut up?)note , a sentence that gained instant Memetic Mutation status.
However, in the later years, his popularity started to take hit after hit: his eldest daughter divorced, his younger daughter and her husband got involved in several scandals related to misappropiation of public funds, and, most infamously, he broke his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana with a mistress, which particularly angered Spanish people since they were in the middle of a very tough recession that had left hundreds of thousands of people without a job. With his public image ruined, he came to be seen more through the lens of many negative memes, which often focused on his hedonism, absentmindedness, slurred speech, and a still persistent rumor that he was actually behind the 1981 coup attempt himself before opting out.
In the end, due in part to both these scandals and his advancing age, he decided to Abdicate the Throne and pass the crown to his only son, Felipe.
And then, after a scandal involving him receiving kick-backs for aiding in the construction of a high-speed railway in Saudi Arabia, he decided to go into self-imposed exile over there in August 2020. Memes about him becoming a full-fledged Sheikh were born.
Reign: Since 19 June 2014 –
Parents: King Juan Carlos I and Sophia of Greece and Denmark
Consort: Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano
Heir: Leonor, Princess of Asturias
The first King of Spain to be married to a commoner (journalist Letizia Ortiz), Felipe has worked hard to make sure he can restore the monarchy's popularity in the eyes of the people, pledging "a renewed monarchy for a new time," as well as cutting royal expenditures and making his assets public.
Whether or not he's succeeding in his endeavours is a matter of debate. At the beginning of his reign, there were calls from some for a referendum to decide whether Spain should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic, but they were a minority and it has not come up since.
As Prince of Asturias, Felipe was a member of the Spanish Olympic sailing team in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, in which he was also the flag-bearer for Spain.
Being a much more subdued character than his father, almost to the point of coming across as unremarkable, many Spaniards aren't yet sure what to make of him. So far, Felipe's reign has been marked by his aforementioned efforts to improve the monarchy's image, his opposition to an independence referendum in Catalonia that was deemed illegal by Spanish authorities, and by the COVID-19 Pandemic, in which he tested positive, but recovered.
Felipe VI's heir presumptive is his eldest daughter, Leonor, Princess of Asturias. In the event that she ascends the throne, she will be Spain's first queen regnant since her great-times-four-grandmother Isabella II in 1868.
Spanish succession follows male-preference primogeniture, so sons of dynasts (and their descendants) come before daughters of dynasts (and their descendants) in the line of succession. Since the UK switched to absolute primogeniture in 2013, Spain and Monaco are now the only monarchies to use male-preference primogeniture. As a result, Princess Leonor is currently the world's only female heir presumptive, meaning that in the event Felipe and Letizia give birth to a boy, she would be knocked down a place in the line of succession.
Just before Leonor was born in 2005, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's PSOE election manifesto called for a constitutional amendment to institute absolute primogeniture for Spanish sucession, with the other mainstream party, the People's Party, voicing its support for the proposal. The idea received more attention in 2006–2007, when then-Princess Letizia had a second pregnancy. But the resulting child, Infanta Sophia, wound up being another daughter, and Felipe and Letizia aren't getting any younger, so the question has become less urgent. As of January 2024, plans for such a constitutional amendment have advanced no further.
On the subject of lines of succession, at points of its history (as mentioned under Isabella II), Spain had to contend with the traditionalist Carlists, who believed that when Fernando VII died in 1833, the throne should have gone to his brother, Infante Carlos María Isidro and his descendants, instead of Isabella II and hers. Isabella II's unpopularity helped their cause, and the Carlists fought three wars to try and get it done, but they were never quite successful. The movement would last for so long that Carlists would play a role in the Franco regime – albeit a small one. These days, Carlism is a niche interest, and the movement suffers a bit from internal squabbles as now there are currently no less than four Carlist pretenders to the throne, based on differing interpretations of the Carlist claim (even Felipe VI has backing from a small group of Carlists – not that he's acknowledged it).