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L’empire des exilés

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Thomas Glesener

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1In 1713, after two centuries of undivided domination in Europe, the Treaty of Utrecht consecrated the dismemberment of the Spanish monarchy and its confinement to the Iberian Peninsula. The loss of Spanish Flanders and Italy has traditionally be seen as the death of the old imperial monarchies in Europe, increasing the decline of the Mediterranean powers and confirming the emergence of the sovereign states which forged the «European balance of power». It has also been considered as a turning point in the long and inexorable decline of Spain: in that perspective, the loss of Spain’s European territories was only a distant prelude to the collapse of its colonial empire in America. Furthermore, under the rule of the new Bourbon dynasty, the foundations of the modern state were supposed to be laid upon the ruins of the Spanish monarchy—fragile foundations of a power deposited in foreign hands which would impose an authoritarian centralism on Aragonese and Castilians alike.

2This book examines the process of Spain’s loss of empire and seeks to show that this demise was not so clean-cut as it has been assured. It looks at the fate of the thousands of Flemish exiles, largely soldiers, who abandoned the Low Countries for the Peninsula to remain under the dominion of the King of Spain. Through them, this study inquires into the circumstances of the imperial withdrawal and its consequence for Spanish society. Indeed, this mass exile underlines the Spanish monarch’s capacity to stand as a pole of attraction of political loyalties in Europe while, in the other hand, the exiles played a considerable part in structuring Spain’s new imperial ambitions. The conditions in which these political refugees were received in the Peninsula made this situation possible: far from leaving them confined in their regiments, the King of Spain gave them access to high positions at Court and in provincial governments. As their main institutional bastion, the king’s military household offered to the exiles a set of specific privileges which allowed them to form a powerful elite. By reconstructing the political and social dynamics of the micro-societies of the Flemish exiles, this book seeks to shed light on the political horizons of a group of exiles and the conditions of their insertion in Spanish state and society. By deciphering the geopolitics that forged the identity of these exiles at an individual level, this study seeks also to understand how the Bourbons re-wrought Spain’s imperial heritage.

3The book comprises seven chapters, organized on a chronological basis running from the end of the 17th century up to the war of independence. The first chapter deals with the circumstances that enabled Louis XIV to attract loyalties among the elites of the Low Countries, and the ways in which this core group of Flemish Bourbonists contributed to the early reforms of the monarchy. Shifting the focus to Spain, the second chapter examines the changes occurred in the noble policy during the civil war in order to attract Flemish elites, who tended to look more towards Versailles than Madrid, at the service of Philip V. The policy consisted in aligning the economy of grace with the participation in the war effort, and concentrating the main charges of the Royal State in the hands of a very limited military elite. The so-called Felipistas were gradually constituted during the war around a handful of families coming from all the European territories of the monarchy. The third chapter looks at the troubles caused by the end of the war on these recent military elite and the unsuccessful attempts to limit the privileges of the army’s generals. Indeed, at that time, the crown assessed the compatibility between maintaining the powerful military corporations created during the civil war and his new political ambitions in Italy and the Mediterranean. In fact, the Flemish exiles only supported the resumption of the war in Southern Europe after hard negotiations for the preservation and enhancement of their privileges. The fourth chapter stands apart from the chronology to examine the social and spatial backgrounds of the Flemish officers. It highlights the way in which the family networks of the exiles enabled them to keep up the ties between the former possessions of the Spanish monarchy, just as well these were structuring the up-and-coming Europe of the Bourbons. It also throws light on the processes whereby Flemish exiles achieved their local integration through alliances with the urban patriciates of the former kingdom of Aragon. Therefore, the Flemish officers who belonged to the second generation borne in Spain had increasing difficulties in justifying their national privileges by the fact of being exiles. In chapter five, the crisis of mi-century is analyzed when an emerging group of Enlighted Spanish reformists criticized the advantages enjoyed by the Flemish and all the military elite. They pointed out the fact that the privileged military corporations inherited from the civil war only permitted the social reproduction of a few families with barely any compensating benefits for the Royal State. Nevertheless, between 1737 and 1754, the urgent appeals for a reform of the military were systematically thwarted by the powerful military corporations. Chapters six and seven deal with the increasing tensions between the king and the military elite during the second half of the eighteen century. At this time, the Flemish officers were engaged in a process of aristocratization re-inventing them as ancient nobility by the appropriation of the military institutions created by Philip V. In doing so, the figure of the founder, the original cosmopolitanism, the dynastic and imperial memory, gradually faded away, and were replaced by a patriotic discourse which claim the rights of the «Spanish» nobility (including their members of Flemish origins) to control the privileged military corporations according to his condition of natural elite of the kingdom. Driven by the abolition of royalty in France to eradicate the general’s opposition, Charles IV, and his favourite Manuel Godoy, pressed this struggle to its ultimate consequences. However, they discovered at their expense how attached was the military aristocracy to the Philippine institutions, such that the generals preferred to rebel and depose the king rather than give up the position they had occupied for a century behind the throne.

4From a fragile dynastic lobby to the hard core of the military aristocracy, Flemish exile reveals the way in which the power of the generals was built up during the eighteenth century. Indeed, the analysis of this micro-society shows that phenomena usually studied separately—such as the imperial dismemberment, the militarization of the monarchy and its dynastic projection in Europe—are nevertheless closely intertwined. At last, the longevity of the privileges of the Flemish nation in Spain during the eighteenth century shows to what extent the Spanish political dynamics have remained deeply marked by the tragic events of the conflict of succession.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2017

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