Port Vell, Barcelona, 1712. Seven years after entering the Spanish War of Succession on the side of the Austrian archduke Charles, allied British, Dutch and German soldiers were ordered to board their ships, leaving Barcelona behind to fight on her own against the overwhelming forces of Philip of Anjou, the unwanted French Bourbon pretender to the Spanish throne. The retreating foreign troops, viewed as traitors by their one-time Catalan allies, were treated to a torrent of abuse, insults and rotten vegetables as they fought through the crowds of enraged local citizens towards the docks.
This article is about the English involvement in the War of Succession. It is about how Catalonia, through its alliance with England, took on the political and military might of the Bourbons, only to be utterly betrayed by English parliament, and left on her own to face the furious vengeance of Philip (Felipe de Borbón), who, like the dictator Franco two centuries later, would bombard her capital Barcelona into submission, tear away all the principality’s privileges, outlaw the use of the Catalan language and marginalize Catalonia from the rest of Spain. While a demoralized Catalonia would have to resign herself to cultural stagnation and political insignificance for over 200 years, her former ally, the newly united and rebranded 'Great Britain' would embark on a golden age, well on the way to becoming established as the most important rising power in the world, helped by her machinations during the Spanish War of Succession.
But what was the chain of events that led up to this point, to the crucial breaking of the alliance, to the betrayal of Catalonia by her English ally?
For several hundred years after Roman rule, while most of Spain was occupied by successive Islamic dynasties, Catalonia was little more than a frontier duchy, protected by the Franks. Eventually, the Frankish yoke, useful in staving off the Moorish threat, but now a hindrance from the other side of the Pyrenees in more prosperous times, was cast off, leaving Catalonia free to to unite with Aragon. This was the start of Catalonia’s imagined golden era.
Catalan merchants were omnipotent throughout the western and central Mediterranean. Trade blazed a path for military conquest. Under Jaume the Conqueror and his succesors between the 13th and 15th Centuries, Naples, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia were brought under the control of an increasingly powerful Crown of Aragon.
In 1469 the unification of Aragon and Castile brought an end to this expansionism. With the wedding of Ferdinand and Isabel, Catalonia’s spell in the limelight was over. Castile, thanks to its military successes in the south and expeditions in the Americas, became the dominant force in the peninsula.
By the time of the heirless Hapsburg monarch Charles II's death in 1701, Catalonia had endured a slow, painful process of assimilation within the new Spain, hindered only temporarily by a Civil War the previous century. Before his death, Charles II had named the Duke of Anjou, Philip, a bratty, libertinistic nephew of his sister (and of the most powerful monarch in Europe, Louis IX of France) as successor.
This Philip, according to a contemporary, the French courtier Saint-Simon, was 'a man of no intelligence, unpredictable mood swings, apathetic...completely insensitive to the misery and pain of fellow human beings, and wicked. He might have been cruel, if he were not so apathetic and engrossed in his obesity and obscurity.'
However, in Vienna, there was another pretender, the Archduke Charles. A Hapsburg cousin of Charles II’s, the Archduke Charles was an unattractive, egotistical man whose cowardice was as legendary as his unpunctuality and disloyalty.
Citizens of Barcelona were already decidedly hostile to the French pretender Philip of Bourbon, whose ambition it was to centralize the Spanish state in Castile along French lines and abolish the special charters and privileges of principalities like Catalonia.
Furthermore the Catalans still harboured unpleasant memories of French occupation before, during and after the Civil War of the previous century called La Guerra dels Segadors (the War of the Reapers). Roussillon and part of Cerdanyá had been annexed away to French rule. French was now the official language in the courts of northern Catalonia. All things French were certainly not de rigeur in Catalonia. Not least the idea of a spoiled French monarch keen to do away with regional privileges.
Nevertheless in 1701 it was Philip who was installed on the throne.
Watching the coronation of Philip with special interest were the emerging powers of Nothern Europe; neither the English or the Dutch were enthralled by the idea of a Bourbon French-Spanish axis. They decided to form an alliance with Austria to break the hegemony. This Great Alliance, as it was known, needed help from within Spain if it was to succeed. They found the rebellious Catalans were only to pleased to help. Thus the Corts de Catalunya were seduced into a pact championing the cause of the Hapsburg pretender, Charles, who would in return protect Catalonia’s privileges as a principality.
In August 1705, the Bourbon forces guarding the Barcelonese fort at Montjuic witnessed the arrival of the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral George Rooke. Rooke had masterminded the destruction of the Spanish treasure fleet at Vigo and had been instrumental in the seizure of Gibraltar one year before (with the help of Catalan allies)
The Catalonian capital was one of the best fortified in the entire Mediterranean, surrounded by imperious city walls and protected by a fortress (Montjuic) which was considered as impregnable as Charles II's wife.
However, among the 180 ships was a flagship carrying an unsung military genius. Sir Charles Mordant, otherwise known as Lord Peterborough, was diminutive in stature, but intrepid in war.
Alighting from his vessel, the flagship Britannia, onto the Llobregat plain where the allied forces were camped, Peterborough was surrounded by German courtiers urging for an immediate siege of the city. ‘Impossible!’ he replied, ‘we have only 7,000 men. We would need some 30,000 men to siege a city so well-defended.’ Amid howls of protest from the Archduke Charles’ courtiers and generals, Peterborough had the artillery loaded back onto the ships and began embarking his troops for departure.
Word of Peterborough's decision spread to the Spanish viceroy and his Bourbon troops inside the city, sparking scenes of elation . The wild celebrations within the city were so loud they could be heard aboard the allied ships.
But, no sooner had the celebrations begun, than Lord Peterborough disembarked with a small force and quickly informed Prince Darmstadt of his hitherto secret plan, which was to go ahead and take the very fortress there upon the hill which everyone claimed was impregnable.
Before dawn, he led his troops to within a quarter of a mile of the outer city walls. The defenders came out to fire on them. The English broke forward and pushed them back, and in a remarkable coup, found themselves in control of a section of the wall. While Bourbon troops stationed on Montjuic were now called away to defend the city walls, Peterborough, Prince Darmstadt and a small force of 280 were able to scale the walls of the fortress.
Inside the city, pro-Hapsburg ‘austracista’ insurgents rose up and took arms to help the invading allies. Finally, as victory was all but ensured, Lord Peterborough was invited into the city to quell the violence of the insurgents and protect the vanquished Bourbonist Viceroy and Duke of Popoli’s wife from rioting local mobs. The siege was over, and Barcelona belonged to the Archduke Charles. Peterborough had played his cards so close to his chest that not even his own men knew his intentions. He had pulled off something truly remarkable.
Over in Castille, the capital Madrid was as partisan to Philip de Bourbon as Barcelona had been to the Archduke Charles. When the pro-Hapsburg allies made their triumphal entry into Madrid in September 1710, following successive victories at Almener and Zaragoza, they were unsettled to find all the shops, factories and homes closed and ithe streets deserted. Madrid had turned itself into a ghost town, with tumbleweed blowing down the streets and eyes peeping through the gaps in shutters. Not even the arrival of the archduke Charles, appearing in the city some days later with all his baggage and habitual tardiness, could shake the population from its proud display of abstention for all things Carlovian. Charles paraded about the streets and made a symbolic visit to the Church at Atocha. But the atmosphere within this magnificent city, the gregarious, high-spirited city of Lope de Vega, Cervantes and Calderon, was nothing but eerily quiet and hostile. Furthermore, it was so vulnerable to attack, both from within and without, that one of the allied generals, Lord Stanhope, decided the allied forces should not stay there a moment longer.
When the crestfallen Hapsburg archduke and his entourage left Madrid, he was taunted by the joyful pealing of bells and the sudden eruption of the city into life. It was a party, and he wasn’t invited. As with Napoleon’s triumphal entry into Moscow, it was meant to be the crowning moment, but it turned out to be the beginning of the end.
Stanhope’s allies wintered in Toledo, old capital of the Visigoths and the Moors. It was here in Toledo’s grand library that Moorish scholars translated the forgotten works of classical antiquity (Plato, Aristotle etc.) providing the seeds of Europe’s great cultural renaissance. Despite its fine location crowning a mount overlooking the snaking Tagus river, Toledo failed to provide the seeds of a renaissance for the flagging spirits of the allies. Here as in Madrid they were treated like the carriers of a contagion that Castilian locals would not expose themselves to. The allies were keen to end their short-lived tour of Castile. They’d had enough of Castilian hospitality. They began to retreat towards Aragon.
Crossing the rugged plains of Castile in harsh wintry conditions, the allied regiments soon began to straggle and split. Stanhope’s decided to revictual his men at Brihuega, a small, fortified city to the east of Guadalajara. His men were exhausted and hungry. They spent two nights here, resting, eating, and probably carousing, safe in the knowledge that the enemy were a long march distant. But on the third day, a mass of white flags appeared on the horizon emblazoned with blue crosses. The enemy hadn't been so far away after all.
Stanhope made furious arrangements for the strenghtening of the delapidated city's defences. By nightfall, the defences were prepared and the enemy were encamped outside the city walls. At dawn, the enemy cannons began to fire and enemy grenadiers peppered the walls. It took under three hours to breach the walls. As the French and Spanish swarmed through, Lord Stanhope was captured; it was the end of his war, though two years later he would be ransomed back to England after a much more pleasant sojourn in Madrid as a privileged political prisoner.
Meanwhile, the Austrian General Guido von Starhemberg, whose combined Austrian, Spanish and Portuguese forces had gone ahead of Stanhope’s towards Zaragoza, had now turned back and were on the march back to Brihuega. They were surprised to find the Bourbon army - under the Duc de Vendome - guarding their way at Villaviciosa de Tajuña.
Von Starhemberg quickly organized his men. While Don Antonio de Villarroel, later one of the main players in the defence of Barcelona, took the middle of the field with his infantry, Von Starhemberg organized his troops to take up a position behind a ravine surrounded by woods and brown fields. A thunderous roar went up in the Spanish right across the ravine as an elegant figure appeared on horseback before them. It was Philip. The Bourbon prince would recline that same night in his tent on a magnificent mattress made from the captured allied standards.
In 1711, Josef I, King of Austria, died. The archduke Charles, the man the Catalans and their English allies had fought to hard to install fleetingly on the Spanish throne, was appointed as his successor. This transformed the political spectrum in Europe. In London the newly-elected Tory party, wary of the prospect of an alliance of German and Spanish power, and unwilling to carry on providing backing for a financially draining war, hold secret meetings with the French King Louis XIV, with the aim of bringing about a conflict-ending treaty.
This was the so-called Utrecht Treaty. The treaty, which was signed by the British and Spanish on July 13th, 1713, made formal recognition of British possession of Gibraltar and Menorca, gifted Queen Ann a monopoloy on the slave trade to the Spanish Americas, secured the territories of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland from the claims of the French, and would condemn Catalonia to fighting on its own against Phillip.
The reaction of the British to the terms of the treaty must have been one of barely containable incredulity and delight. The reaction of the Catalan parliament would have been rather different.
By the summer of 1713, Barcelona, deserted by the English, the Dutch and all her allies, was the last city holding out against Philip. Bourbon ships arrived a little way up the coast on the Maresme to provide men, horses and munitions for the siege. Inside the city there was furious deliberation as the Catalan corts met to decide what should be done. The odds were almost impossible, with over 40,000 troops converging on a city armed with less than a quarter of that. The Generalitat would not take the easy way out and surrender. The siege would go on for over a year. It would make folk-heroes of men such as Don Antonio Villarroel, the General in charge of the defence, and the Commander-in-Chief, Rafael Casanovas. In the end however it was to be the end of the Principality of Catalunya and its privileges. Thanks, in part, to the English and their meddling perfidy. Or in the words of Victus author Albert Sanchez Piñol, 'In exchange for the English not labouring on about the Catalan question, the Spanish and French handed them Newfoundland. That's what 1000 years of our liberty meant to them: 20 tonnes of cod per annum.'
That the concluding Siege of Barcelona would be carried out by a Scotsman - the Jacobean exile and Bourbon favourite, Lord Berwick, Louis XIV's most trusted general (and a forefather of the recently deceased Duquesa de Alba) - is an ironic footnote.
The consequences of the abandonment of Catalonia in her war against Philip are extraordinary. Of course, the ingrate Charles of Austria's accession to the Austrian throne and subsequent desertion of his Catalan subjects, combined with the Treaty of Utrecht, sealed Catalonia's fate in the war; they had backed the wrong horse. But it was Barcelona's rejection of all overtures of a peaceful end to the conflict, perhaps believing that their allies might still return to their aid at the last minute, which set in motion a suicidal battle to the very end, causing the deaths of thousands in a year-long siege whose gruesome conclusion is today comemorated every year on September 11 and is called La Diada de Catalunya. It is Catalonia's most vivid myth; a heroic last stand, the equivalent of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae - and the English unwittingly helped to create it.