2.6.1. Fernando VII

As we previously saw, Fernando VII restored absolutism in Spain as soon as he came back from France in 1814, in line as it was happening in the rest of Europe (Congress of Vienna). The Constitution of 1812 and the reforms of the Cortes de Cádiz were repealed, and liberals were persecuted, jailed or forced to exile. 

Fernando VII reigned until 1832, and we can divide his reign into three periods:

  • Sexenio Absolutista: From 1814 to 1820, Fernando tried to restore all the privileges and institutions of the Old Regime to his kingdom, but some of the people who fought during the Peninsular War and were in charge of the army didn’t give up on the liberal ideas and advances made during wartime, so they planned and led armed uprisings (pronunciamientos) during this period.

  • Trienio LiberalIn 1820, an army prepared to embark upon the American colonies to suppress the independence movements of the colonies, revolted against the absolutist government of Fernando VII. This uprising, led by colonel Riego, was successful and forced Fernando VII to restore the Constitution of 1812 and the liberal reforms. The three years of liberal government saw the first division of the enemies of absolutism: 

    • Moderate liberals or doceañistas (later conservatives): Supporters of introducing liberal reforms little by little and through negotiation with the supporters and elites of the Old Regime

    • Radical liberals or exaltados (later progressists): Supporters of a complete break with the Old Regime’s institutions, with no space for compromise.

  • Década Ominosa:  In 1823, Fernando VII invoked the Treaty of the Holy Alliance made during the Congress of Vienna between absolutist powers. An army of French soldiers (Los Cien Mil Hijos de San Luis) invaded Spain and restored the absolutist throne. For the next ten years, the king took reactionary, anti-liberal and conservative measures, such as reinstating the Inquisition or the closure of universities. However, during this period, Fernando VII began to make contact with thedoceañistas to ensure that they supported his plan for his daughter Isabel to succeed him. The king’s dealings with the moderate liberals were not popular with the absolutists, who supported Fernandos’s brother Carlos María Isidro, forming the basis for the future Carlist Party.

In 1833, Fernando VII died. His daughter Isabel, still a child (she was born in 1830), inherited the throne. To ensure that she would inherit, Fernando VII passed a new law before his death: thePragmática Sanción. This replaced the Salic Law, which forbade succession by women. This triggered a civil war between Carlos’ supporters and Isabel’s. This was the First Carlist War

2.6.2. Isabel II

Fernando VII died in 1833 and his daughter Isabel II inherited the crown. Because she was still a minor, the first period of her reign was controlled by the Regent, her mother Maria Cristina de Nápoles. The absolutist party chose Fernando’s brother, Carlos, as the best candidate to keep Old Regime’s political and social institutions, so they didn’t recognize Isabel’s coronation, starting a civil war.

Carlist war lasted from 1833 to 1840, and it was much more than a succession dispute. Each of the contenders represented very different political options. The Carlists supported absolutism, and traditions (their motto was: “Dios, Patria, Rey y Fueros”) while Isabel’s supporters wanted a transition to moderate liberalism. Despite support for carlism was widespread in rural areas of the north, the army and the urban population kept loyal to Isabel, which allowed Isabel to win the war, led bygeneral Espartero.

Isabel II’s reign (1833-1868) can be divided into two phases

The reign of Isabel II (1833-1868)

Minority reign

Regency of María Cristina (1833-1840)

Regency of General Espartero (1840-1843)

Majority reign

Moderate Decade (1844-1854)

Progressive Biennium (1854-1856)

Crisis of moderatism (1856-1868)

During the period of the Regency of Maria Cristina (1833-1840) the transition from an absolutist monarchy to a constitutional one took place. Maria Cristina, as was opposed to absolutists had to look for support from moderate liberals and reformists, which, from the government, started to create a liberal state:

  • In the first period of the Regency, the approved of the Estatuto Real (1834). It wasn’t a proper Constitution, as it didn’t recognize national sovereignty, which was still on the hands of the queen. There was a representation (Cortes), but only with consultive functions.

  • Some liberals thought this wasn’t enough, so a revolt started that led to the progressist taking control of government. They approved, under minister Mendizábal, a new Constitution in 1837, a less radical version of the Cadiz Constitution. They also approved liberal measures such as thedesamortizacióna law that nationalized lands from the church to sell them to private hands as means of getting funds for the war and the national debt.

  • After the liberals took power, and for the rest of Isabel II’s reign, there were two political parties. These parties represented the two types of liberalism: The Moderate Party and the Progressive Party. Although both liberal, the two groups had different ideologies







Shared between the king and the Parliament.

Census suffrage.


Nobility and high bourgeoisie.



Just the Parliament.

Universal suffrage.

Greater local autonomy.

Mid-sized class

Confessional but allowing other religions

After the approval of the Constitution of 1837, the Regent favored the moderate party, giving them all the power, which they used to reverse some of the measures taken by the progressists. These saw the actions of the Regent unfair, and revolted against her, forcing her into exile, and starting a new period, the Regency of Espartero (1840-1843)

In 1843, after some more popular and military revolts, Espartero was ousted, and it was decided to declare the majority of Queen Isabel II.

Between 1843 and 1868, parliamentary power alternated between the two main parties that supported Isabel: The Moderate Party and the Progressive Party.

  • During the Década Moderada, the government’s position was very conservative, based on the new Constitution of 1845, which reinforced the Crown’s powers. The progressives were marginalised and the recently created Democratic Party was suppressed.

  • The Bienio Progresista began in 1854, when a group of progressive centrist troops took power by staging a coup d’état known as the Vicalvarada. A new constitution was then written, but never ratified. There was a second desamortización, led by progressive minister Madoz, in order to get funds to promote industrial development and the building of railways. Attempts at liberalisation were made, but as a result of growing social unrest the moderates again took power.

  • During this period of crisis of moderatism, the opposition was excluded from parliament, and the military, politicians and students were harshly repressed. Because of this great social unrest, a coup d’état was planned from abroad. Progressives, democrats, republicans and unionists (led by O’Donnell in the Liberal Union party) signed the Pact of Ostend (1866). Two years later, in September 1868, a successful military revolt in Cádiz started the Revolution of 1868. Isabel II went into exile in France.


Isabel II’s regime was based on the queen’s great power. She selected the country’s prime ministers from a group of moderate politicians. In an attempt to put pressure on the queen, the progressives resorted to military uprisings. The uprising was a coup d’état supported by a combination of political, military and popular action. First, the politicians conspired and planned the coup d’état. Then the military revolted. Their actions were supported by popular uprisings.