What's wrong with Catalan independence

This is how the Catalonia conflict began almost 400 years ago

For a long time, Catalonia enjoyed extensive independence within the Spanish state association. Until Philip IV wanted to force all regions of the empire under uniform laws. In contrast, there was an uprising in Barcelona in 1640

1640: The uprising of the Catalans

No pious songs can be heard from the procession that marches through the streets of Barcelona on Corpus Christi 1640. "Death to the traitors!" Shouted the roughly 500 men. Many of them have sickles in their fists. They are segadors, reapers. With the day laborers who, like every year, move into the city at this time to offer their services for the harvest, insurgents have also come to Barcelona: For months they have been fighting against the decision of the royal government to billet troops in their villages.

They run to the residence of the viceroy sent from Madrid and collect wood to set the building on fire. But when the brothers of the neighboring Minorite Convention put a crucifix on the pile, they dare not set it on fire and pull up the Rambla, at that time a street on the outskirts of Barcelona. There they storm the house of a royal judge and burn his furniture, books and papers. The judge escapes to a monastery, but is discovered and stabbed to death by rebels later that day.

The viceroy flees to the shipyard at the port. A galley is ready for him. But he hesitates: if he leaves, the city will be lost to the central government in Madrid. Rumor has it that royal soldiers killed a Barcelona city council. Now craftsmen and other dissatisfied people from the city are joining the rebels from the countryside. A good 3,000 people make their way to the shipyard in the afternoon.

At the same time, some occupy the tower of the neighboring bastion. With daggers held in front of them, they force an officer to fire cannon shots at the galley - thereby driving the ship away. With a few faithful, the viceroy then flees along the coast. On June 7th, 1640, the uprising, which had its origins in the villages of the hinterland, finally reached the capital: all of Catalonia now rises against the government in distant Madrid.

Centuries ago, Catalonia remained independent for a long time

Almost exactly 500 years earlier, the independent Principality of Catalonia was united with the neighboring Kingdom of Aragón, when the Aragonese heir to the throne was promised to the Count of Barcelona by marriage contract in 1137. In the 14th century, the kings of the empire ruled Sardinia, Sicily and parts of Greece. The capital of Barcelona, ​​with around 50,000 inhabitants, became one of the most important ports in the western Mediterranean.

Under the Aragonese crown, the Catalans retained their independence in the centuries that followed. You have a state parliament that corts, in which the nobles, clergy and patricians of the cities are represented, as well as a high council, the diputació, which collects taxes and represents the province to the ruler.

Above all, the Catalans own the "Constitutions", a collection of laws and privileges. Every Aragonese king must swear to heed them when he takes office - for example, that he can only raise taxes or pass laws with the approval of the Corts. And that the Catalans only have to share in the costs of a war waged by their king if their own territory is attacked.

Ferdinand of Aragón, whose marriage to Isabella of Castile led to the unification of the two great Spanish empires, confirmed the constitutions in 1479. Catalonia continues to mint its own coins, Catalan remains the official language.

The highest representative of the Spanish monarch is a viceroy in Barcelona, ​​whose power is severely restricted by the constitutions. The other parts of Spain - such as the Basque provinces and Navarre - also defend their special rights; only in their heartland Castile do the kings rule almost unrestrictedly.

At the royal court in Madrid, however, with the coronation of Philip IV in 1621, a man rose up who wanted to change exactly that: the 34-year-old Gaspar de Guzmán, Count of Olivares, who soon became the first minister for the weak king to lead the affairs of government. Olivares is a restless man, driven by one goal: to merge Spain's sub-kingdoms into a unified, modern state, regardless of special rights.

"The most important thing for you is to become King of Spain", he warns Philip IV in a memorandum. "By that I mean that Your Majesty should not be satisfied with being King of Aragon and Valencia and Count of Barcelona. Rather that you should work to adapt these kingdoms to the customs and laws of Castile, without any distinction. "

To this end, the minister is planning to reform the military. He wants to unite the empires in a defense union: each should have a certain number of reservists ready; in the event of an attack on one of the provinces, the others should stand by her side with their contingents.

The war divides Spain and Catalonia

Until then, Castile has always borne most of the costs of the war, but after almost 60 years of fighting the rebels in the Netherlands, it is ruined. Now the other sub-kingdoms are to take part in the wars.

In March 1626 Olivares traveled to Barcelona with the king and urged the Corts to agree to his plan. When it became known that Catalonia would provide and pay 16,000 reservists, there was tumult in the assembly. The representatives of the estates refer to the constitutions - and reject them. "In the Principality of Catalonia, residents are free," explains one of them, "and cannot be obliged to serve Her Majesty."

Thereupon Olivares demands a compensation of at least 250,000 ducats per year. A huge sum - the Catalan government only collects around 150,000 ducats in taxes annually. Again the Corts refuse. For days they debate how much they are willing to pay. Until, on the morning of May 4th, they are surprised by the news that the king has canceled his visit. An affront to the Catalans, but also a defeat for Olivares. But he doesn't give up his plan.

13 years later the time has come: France declared war on Spain in 1635, and Olivares decided in the spring of 1639 to build a new front against the French in Catalonia. But if their territory becomes involved in the war, he hopes, "the Catalans will prove to be brave fighters".

He demands 14,000 Catalan soldiers. But recruiting is difficult: when the French conquer the important border fortress of Salses on July 19, only around 7,500 Catalans were under arms. Nevertheless, together with troops from other provinces, they in turn include Salses. Soon, however, illnesses break out among the besiegers, and storms wear down the soldiers. Thousands are deserting, the roads to the south are overcrowded with the sick and dying. In November the Catalan army shrank to 2,000 men.

In January 1640 the French surrender in Salses. Olivares now orders the soldiers of the royal army to be quartered in Catalonia for the next few months - a good 9,000 men in a country exhausted by war. He also orders the Catalans to feed the soldiers. But that is a violation of the Constitutions.

The Catalan high council, the Diputació, drafted a protest note. Thereupon the viceroy arrested a member of the Diputació on instructions from Madrid, as well as two members of the city parliament of Barcelona who had tried to declare a kind of state mourning. In the countryside, residents and soldiers keep clashing at the same time. It often remains unclear who is the source of the violence: there are looters among the soldiers, but also many who are just desperate from hunger - and the Catalans often refuse even the slightest support.

In February, several Walloon mercenaries died in a riot in a coastal town. On April 27, an official of the viceroy wants to enforce further billeting in a small town around 70 kilometers northwest of Barcelona. The locals threaten him, he takes refuge in his hostel, the residents set them on fire, the officer burns.

Hundreds of men are now banding together in the neighboring communities and attacking royal troops that are quartered in the area. The soldiers flee, but set fire to a village church in which the residents have stored their belongings. For this sacrilege, the Bishop of Girona excommunicated the soldiers. For many Catalans, the fight against the central government is now also a holy war.

More and more rural residents are arming themselves. On the morning of May 22nd, around 2,000 men with pistols, muskets and an image of Christ in their hands squeezed through one of the city gates of Barcelona. They move to the prison, tear down the gates and free the member of the Diputació and the other two prisoners. The Bishop of Barcelona rushes over, the rebels kiss his hand - and are convinced to leave Barcelona again. But they have shown that they can do whatever they want in the city.

1640: The central government of Catalonia collapses

On the afternoon of June 7, 1640, Corpus Christi day, the sun burns hot on the rocky coastline that leads south from the port of Barcelona. After escaping from the shipyard, the Viceroy, a corpulent man, makes only difficult progress. He stumbles, sweats and soon falls behind his companions.

Again and again he has to duck: the rebels throw stones and shoot. The Viceroy continues to climb over boulders. Eventually slips, falls, and remains passed out on his back. The insurgents get to him quickly. A sailor pulls his dagger and rams it in the stomach of the viceroy, after which a Segador stabs several more times. His Majesty's Deputy Philip IV of Spain is bleeding to death on the beach.

With the viceroy's death, the power of the central government in Catalonia collapses completely. For four days, the rebels raged in Barcelona, ​​ransacking the houses of judges and killing several high-ranking officials. When they finally withdraw, further riots break out in the rest of the country. They are directed against the king's soldiers, his representatives, his officials and judges. But nobody is thinking of renouncing the king himself and declaring Catalonia independent.

A man suffering from severe gout is appointed the new viceroy and dies a few weeks later. The sole authority in Catalonia now lies with the Diputació under its chairman, the clergyman Pau Claris. The 54-year-old is a proud, easily irritable man who has been leading the resistance against the king-friendly bishop in his diocese for years.

Claris and his colleagues face a double threat. Because the king gathers his troops at the borders of the province - and inside the anger of the rebels is now directed against the entire upper class. City councilors, aristocrats, wealthy merchants: everyone is in danger of being attacked as traitors, regardless of whether they are loyal to the king or not. The Diputació want to continue the Catalan uprising against Madrid. And at the same time you have to be careful not to be swept away by the rebellious violence.

Claris knows he needs an ally to do this. He turns to the greatest enemy of the Spanish king: France. A relative of his had begun secretly to contact the French weeks earlier. In September envoys from both sides meet in a Capuchin monastery in the north of the province. The Catalan representatives are now formally seeking protection from the French king and asking for soldiers, weapons and ammunition. In return, they offer the French negotiator Bernard du Plessis-Besançon "perpetual brotherhood".

While the French are traveling home to discuss Catalonia's request, the Diputació tries to raise their own army. But the chaos in the country is too great. The high council can hardly prevail. In October du Plessis travels to Barcelona and meets with the Diputació. The French don't speak Catalan, the Catalans don't speak French, they have to speak to each other in Castilian, the language of the common enemy.

Negotiations are tough: France wants to secure permanent influence over the province. But Claris and his colleagues are not yet ready to officially break away from Philip IV. They explain that the Catalans are only leading an uprising against the bad government under Olivares - that does not change their loyalty to the king.

Nevertheless, an agreement is reached: The French send 3,000 soldiers, as security they receive nine Catalan hostages. At the end of November, the Spanish army marched into the province from the south with more than 20,000 men. They advance quickly northwards, the resistance of the Catalans is weak.

The French commander was so discouraged by the lack of combat readiness of the inhabitants that he withdrew his men and on December 24, 1640 surrendered the city of Tarragona to Philip IV's troops without a fight. In Barcelona the people then take to the streets again, hunt down alleged traitors and rage even more violently than on Corpus Christi day.

Claris asks the French urgently for new talks. Du Plessis demands a final break with Madrid, only then will France defend Catalonia. He brings Claris an offer from Cardinal Richelieu, First Minister of Louis XIII: Catalonia should declare itself a free republic under the protection of the French king. Claris calls the representatives together. On January 16, 1641 they agree. Catalonia is now an independent state, with no king or prince. For exactly one week.

King Louis XIII becomes Count of Barcelona

Because du Plessis is still not satisfied. As Madrid's troops move closer and closer to Barcelona, ​​he calls for Catalonia to submit completely to the King of France. To increase the pressure, he is holding back his own troops. On January 23rd, the Spanish army almost reached Barcelona, ​​the Catalans agree and elect France's King Louis XIII. to the Count of Barcelona.

Three days later, the French and Catalans hit back the Spanish units together in front of the city wall. A few weeks after this victory, Claris dies unexpectedly, possibly poisoned by a Spanish agent. He no longer experiences how the French now live even more ruthlessly than the men of the Spanish king before, forcibly billeting themselves, disregarding traditional rights.

By 1652 Philip IV succeeded in recapturing the province in which the French are now just as hated as the envoys of the central government were once. Olivares has long been dead - and with him his idea of ​​a unified Spanish state. And despite his victory over the Catalans, the king is ready to continue to respect the province's special rights.

It was not until a good 60 years later that his great-grandson Philip V made another attempt to abolish the privileges - and it was successful: In the dispute over the Spanish throne, the Catalans supported an opponent of Philip V, and as a punishment they are now losing their centuries-old special status.

But the awareness of Catalan independence lives on. And so the "Song of the Segadors", today the official anthem of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia, still reminds of the uprising on Corpus Christi 1640. There it says: "Now it is time, you reapers! Now it is time to be vigilant! Until another June comes, let's sharpen the tools well! "

You can read more about the history of Spain in GEO epoch No. 31 "When Spain ruled the world". You can order the magazine online in the GEO Shop.

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