Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 28 February 2011

King Alfonso XIII

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the death in exile in Rome of King Alfonso XIII of Spain.


King Alfonso is, I think, I am right in saying, one of only three European monarchs to have been actually born as King - the others are King John I of France, who lived for a few days in 1316 and King Ladislaus I of Hungary and Bohemia in the mid fifteenth century. The King officially came of age when he was 16 in 1902.

His reign was one which saw the loss of Spain's remaining colonies in Cuba and the Caribbean  and the Philippines in 1898, and the partial recomspense of the creation of a holding in Morocco in the 1920s. It also saw the passing of the old politics of party rotation with the establishment of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera 1923-30. This coincided with a temporary period of prosperity, but by supporting it the King can be seem  to have compromisd the position of the monarchy.  The economic crisis, resentment at the former dictatorship, together with nationalist and radical movements led to the King's exile. The municipal elections in 1931 led to the revolution which overthrew the monarchy on April 14. This seemed to many so sudden that someone remarked that Spain had gone to bed a monarchy and woke up a republic. 

The dreadful years which followed led to increasing polarization and civil war. The Nationalists included many monarchists, but amongst these were Carlists, and those who were unfavourable to the King. In September 1936 Gen. Franco made it clear that they would not accept Alfonso back as King. Over a decade later the Caudillo formally restored the monarchy, but with avacant throne and himself as Regent. When urged to actually reinsate the monarchy he commented that he had found the crown in the dirt and was still burnishing it. Not until 1975 did King Alfonso's grandson become King on the death of Gen. Franco. 

In some ways King Alfonso is reminiscent of our own King Charles II - it's not just the pencil moustache that makes for the resemblance. Alfonso produced several illegitimate children and portraits of him in the 1920s suggest a worldly-wise, dilettante quality not unlike the Merry Monarch.  The attempt of an anarchist to assassinate him and his Queen on their wedding day in 1906 may perhaps, even in that age of violent attacks, have given him a sense of the impermanence of the status quo. There was tendency to self-mockery: thus he made something of a farce of the annual maundy service of washing the feet of the poor and serving them a meal, or deliberately going to an exiled  Spanish republican hairdresser on his visits to London. He was certainly capable of affability and kindness. During the Great War he arranged for contact between prisoners of war and their families through his position as a neutral ruler, and in 1922 he chivalrously provided shelter for the Empress Zita and her family after the death of the Emperor Charles.
His marriage to Queen Victoria Eugenie was overshadowed not only by his infidelity but also by the haemophilia inherited by two of their sons, which resulted in the deaths first of their youngest and then their eldest son, who had previously renounced his rights of succession whilst in exile so as to marry a commoner, as a result of otherwise minor car accidents in 1934 and 1938. Their second son became a deaf mute as a result of an operation as a boy, so he and the Queen were not spared family tragedies.

 On January  14 1941, with his health failing, he abdicated in favour of his third son, the Count of Barcelona, who became the de jure King Juan III, and who was the father of King Juan Carlos I. In January 1980 King Alfonso's remains were returned to Spain and reburied at El Escorial alongside his ancestors.

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