Habsburgs and Bourbons — So What?

As a travel writer and TV producer, I pride myself on not avoiding complicated history-teaching challenges. Anyone can throw out the name Joan of Arc — but so what? Anyone can reference Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants — but so what? Anyone can say “The Thirty Years’ War” — but so what? Without having my readers’ and viewers’ eyes glaze over, I try to fill in the “so what’s.”

Doing this is always a challenge in the TV scriptwriting process, because I need to set the historic context up front, when a TV show is supposed to be fun and engaging. But with the good help of my staff, we keep the bar pretty high and enjoy having the best of both worlds.

This spring, I was in Madrid talking about new palaces, wars of succession, and Habsburgs and Bourbons, and it occurred to me that I didn’t understand how and why Spain’s two royal families came to power and – so what?!

With the help of my favorite Madrid guide, Federico Barroso, and Cameron Hewitt (here in our office), we just took my rough essay, which was filled with gaps, and honed it into what I think is a pretty tight little sidebar for the next edition of our Spain guidebook. In case you’ve been lying awake at night, thinking, “Habsburgs and Bourbons in Spain — so what?”…here’s that new sidebar from the 2013 edition of Rick Steves’ Spain:


Spain’s Royal Families: From Habsburg to Bourbon

Spain as we know it was essentially born in the 15th century, when Queen Isabel (who ruled Castile and León) married King Ferdinand (who ruled Aragon and Navarre), bringing these four long-established medieval kingdoms together (1469). The so-called “Catholic Monarchs” (Reyes Católicos) wasted no time driving the Islamic Moors out of Spain (the Reconquista). By 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand conquered Granada, incorporating a fifth kingdom (Andalucía) and establishing more or less the same borders that Spain has today (minus its breakaway regions that have struggled for autonomy to this day: Catalunya, the Basque lands, and Galicia).

This was an age when “foreign policy” was conducted, in part, by marrying royal children into other royal families. Among the dynastic marriages of Isabel and Ferdinand’s children, they arranged for their third child, Juana “the Mad,” to marry the crown prince of Austria, Philip “the Fair.” This was a huge coup for the Spanish royal family. A member of the Habsburg dynasty, Philip was the heir to the Holy Roman Empire, which then encompassed much of today’s Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Transylvania, Low Countries, southern Italy, and more. And when Juana’s brothers died, making her ruler of the Kingdoms of Spain, it paved the way for her son, Charles, to inherit all of the kingdoms of his four grandparents—creating a vast realm and famously becoming “the most powerful man in Europe.” He became both Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

He was followed by Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, and finally Charles II. Over this period, Spain rested on its Golden Age laurels, eventually squandering much of its wealth and losing some of its holdings. Arguably the most inbred of an already very inbred dynasty (his parents were uncle and niece), Charles II was weak, sickly, and unable to have children, ending the 200-year Habsburg dynasty in Spain with his death in 1700.

Charles II willed the Spanish crown to the Bourbons of France, specifically, his grand-nephew, Philip of Anjou (who was also the grandson of the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France). But the rest of Europe feared allowing the already-powerful Louis XIV to add Spain (and Spain’s vast New World holdings) to his empire. Therefore, Austria, the Germanic States, Holland, and England backed a different choice, Archduke Charles of Austria (grandson of Spain’s King Philip IV). So began the War of Spanish Succession (1700-1714), involving all of Europe. The war ended with a French victory. However, with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Philip had to give up his rights to the throne of France. This let him take the Spanish throne, but ensured that the future Spanish Bourbon dynasty could not merge with the French branch of that royal family — keeping Spain independent.

In 1714, the French-speaking Philip became the first king of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain (with the name Philip V). The Spanish throne, under the inbred Habsburgs, had grown ineffectual and corrupt, and Philip V breathed much-needed new life into the monarchy.

When the old wood-structured Habsburg Royal Palace partially burned down on Christmas Eve of 1734, Philip V (who had been born at Versailles) decided to build a new and spectacular late-Baroque-style palace as a bold symbol of the new dynasty. This is the palace that wows visitors to Madrid today. Construction finished in 1764, by which time Philip V’s son Charles III became the first to occupy the new palace. Charles III’s decorations are what you’ll still see inside when you visit.

The Bourbon palace remained the home of Spain’s kings from 1764 all the way until 1931, when Francisco Franco proclaimed the Second Spanish Republic, forcing King Alfonso XIII into exile. Although Franco originally chose to sideline the royals to make himself ruler-for-life, he later handpicked as his successor Prince Juan Carlos, a Bourbon by birth and Alfonso XIII’s grandson. Franco believed that Juan Carlos would continue Franco’s own hardline policies. But when Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos surprised everybody by voluntarily turning the real power back over to the parliament. Today Spain is a constitutional monarchy with a figurehead Bourbon king — Juan Carlos I — at the helm.

Madrid's remarkable Royal Palace wows tourists. But understanding its history — and the two royal dynasties that have shaped Spain, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons — make it even more compelling.

5 Replies to “Habsburgs and Bourbons — So What?”

  1. Rick, Rick, Rick. Franco did not “proclaim the Second Republic” in 1931. Franco led a military fascist rebellion against the elected government of the Republic in 1936, and after a brutal and bloody civil war (with the help of Mussolini and Hitler) made himself dictator. Franco was the enemy of republicanism, democracy, and civil liberties. Had he not been too cautious to enter the Second World War as Hitler urged him to (in person), Franco would have ended up the way Mussolini did.

  2. Catalunya, the Basque lands, and Galicia were part of the Spain that Ferdinand and Isabella united. Your text implies they were not part of Spain at that time.

  3. Speaking of Spanish history including Ferdinand and Isabella, there is an excellent new book by Laurence Bergreen about Columbus and his voyages to th new world. It’s the first full portrait of Columbus in half a century and reveals his personality, his accomplishments and his frailties. Anybody who talks about the history of Spain should read it.

  4. OK everyone, I have been reading/buying Rick’s guidebooks, video’s etc., for years. As far as historical accuracy goes, Rick is Rick….he can be bias…when he writes, “Italy is the cradle of European civilization”…I cringe…it would be nice if he read Cleopatra A Life by Stacy Schiff, it explains a lot about Rome and it’s grandeur and it’s very well researched…it is what it is….carpe diem

  5. Millions of tourists visit Spain, particularly the region of Andalucia : Cordoba, Granada y Sevilla. Many consider this region the authentic Spain. It was born not in the 15th century. it was born in the 700s with the occupation of Tarik and Musa from the African and Arab dominions ) it was a cultural revolution,the unification of three culturas they advanced in, philosophy, science and the arts The Mezquita in CordobaLa Alhambra in Granada,The Alcazar in Sevilla are a few reminds of a grand civilization before Isabela y Fernando (Los Reyes Catolicos)

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