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History of the Fight for Catalan Independence

If you spend any amount of time in Spain, particularly in its proud Catalan region , you will hear about the people’s fight for independence. But where did it start, and what does this mean for Spain?

Insider Kristjan is going to cover this subject in an in-depth series. In this first post, he covers the history of the fight for Catalan independence.

Quo Vadis Catalonia?

The case for Catalan Independence is multifaceted and complex, resting on several arguments rather than a single overriding consideration. Before delving into the heart of the matter, it is necessary to review some of the pertinent background and history which help define Catalonia as a distinct socio-political entity. Only then can the issues be defined in favor or against independence.

Beginning in the 700’s, when nearly all of Iberia was subject to Muslim conquest and rule, Catalonia reached across the Pyrenees mountains to seek to protection under Charlemagne. Thus it retained vital political, military and social links to Christianity and European authority.

Not unlike the United Kingdom, Spain was previously a comprised of smaller independent kingdoms, each with its own unique historical and social identity. Catalonia was governed by the Counts of Barcelona, whose authority to rule was checked by powerful feudal lords, thus giving rise to a tradition of rights and agreements. As early as the 12th century, a written charter, the ‘Usatges’, explicitly limited the Sovereign’s powers. As such, public authority never embraced the strains of absolutism found elsewhere on the peninsula. Decades before King John signed Magna Carta in England, governing in Catalonia was exercised with the consent of the governed.

In 1150, the Count of Barcelona was betrothed to the child-Queen of the neighboring kingdom of Aragon. Her dowry included the sovereign rights of her estates, thus joining the two crowns into a single Kingdom of Aragon, encompassing Catalonia. Subsequent expansion into southern France, the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, Malta, Greece, and down the coastline of the Iberian Peninsula, created a rich and potent state reaching its zenith by the 14th century.

In 1469, the betrothal of Aragon’s King Ferdinand to Queen Isabel of neighboring Castille, set the stage for Spain’s ensuing half-millennia. Castille controlled most of the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula and the joining of the two kingdoms created one of Europe’s most powerful nations. The contract was conceived as a marriage of equals, but in actual practice the customs and laws of Castille quickly became dominant. To a large degree, this was due to the discovery of the New World, an exclusively Castillian economic bonanza with Queen Isabel as the patron of Columbus’ ventures. Aragon remained an independent kingdom, but largely relegated to second-class status, ruled from Madrid by means of an appointed Viceroy, dependent on Castille for access to trade and riches emanating from the far flung overseas Empire.

King Charles II, a direct descendant of Ferdinand & Isabel, died in 1700 without sons, brothers, uncles or male cousins, whereupon the Dynasty became extinct. His sister, Maria Theresa, had a son and grandsons, who were potential heirs to the Spanish throne. Maria Theresa was married to France’s King Louis XIV, meaning the heir to Spain’s throne through the maternal line was also heir to France’s throne via paternal lineage. A decision was made to split the Bourbon dynasty into two separate but equal branches, each headed by respective brothers – Phillip, Duke of Anjou, for Spain, and Louis, Duke of Burgundy, for France. The arrangement sent shock waves throughout Europe, whose rulers were wary of a single dynasty ruling over a possible State colossus. This led to the War of the Spanish Succession, a European conflict that raged for 14 years, in which the opposition supported rival claims of Archduke Charles of Austria, a Hapsburg Prince descended from Charles II’s grandfather.

The still nominally independent Kingdom of Aragon played an important role in the conflict, supporting the claims of Archduke Charles. Unfortunately, Phillip de Bourbon’s forces prevailed, meaning Aragon-Catalonia wound up on the losing side of the conflict. The punishment for this perceived treason was the ‘New Plan’ of 1714. Aragon’s status as a independent State was terminated, replaced by strengthened Castillian authority in Madrid. Nearly one thousand years of existence as a distinct legal entity passed unceremoniously into history, after which Catalonia became just another region of Spain.

Despite Catalonia’s political misfortunes, Catalan culture has endured, including the language. Over the past 300 years, sentiments for its lost statehood have periodically surfaced within Catalan society. The current push for independence is yet another attempt by Catalonia’s political elite to cut ties to the rest of Spain.

Watch the Spain blog for more from Insiders, including the next post from Kristjan on " The Case for Catalan Independence ". For more of his expertise on Spain, read his book “The Reign in Spain – Fall & Rise of the Spanish Monarchy” (https://www.amazon.com/Reign-Spain-Fall-Spanish...).

Published January 16th by Kristjan Arnold
Posted to Expat Blog

3 Comments

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Tom M

An interesting history lesson so far. His book 'The Reign in Spain' has received excellent reviews.

Posted January 16th

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Phil Siegel

I read Arnold's book, THE REIGN IN SPAIN. This guy knows amazing amounts about Spanish history, but he makes it very accessible. I cannot think of many authors that can take hundreds of years of wars, treaties and alliances and lay them out in such an easy-to-read fashion. I look forward to more of his insights into the modern era.

Posted January 19th

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Kristjan Arnold

Thank you for those generous comments and for your interest in my writings! The situation in Catalonia promises to be yet another cliff-hanger in Spain's fascinating history. Join Insiders Abroad and me to watch it unfold over the coming months.

Posted January 20th

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