Historipedia Official Wiki
Historipedia Official Wiki
First Carlist War
Part of the Carlist Wars
The Battle of Mendigorría, 16 July 1835.
Date 29 September 1833 – 13 May 1839
Location Spain
Result Liberal victory
  • Lord Eliot Convention
  • Convention of Vergara
23x15px Carlists

Supported by:
23x15px Miguel I


Supported by:
United Kingdom
23x15px Maria II

Commanders and leaders
See list
23x15px Carlos V
23x15px Tomás Zumalacárregui
23x15px Ramón Cabrera
23x15px Rafael Maroto
23x15px González Moreno
23x15px Miguel Gómez Damas
23x15px Sebestian Gabriel
See list
Maria Christina
Isabella II
Genaro de Quesada
José Ramón Rodil
Francisco Espoz
Luis Fernández
Baldomero Espartero
Isidro de Alaix
Jerónimo Valdés
Marcelino de Oraá
Manuel O'Doyle
Casualties and losses
Carlists: 15,000-60,000 Liberals: 15,000-65,000
French: 7,700
British: 2,500
Polish: 15,000
Portuguese: 50

The First Carlist War was a civil war in Spain from 1833 to 1839, fought between factions over the succession to the throne and the nature of the Spanish monarchy. It was fought between supporters of the regent, Maria Christina, acting for Isabella II of Spain, and those of the late king's brother, Carlos de Borbón (or Carlos V). The Carlists supported return to an absolute monarchy.

Historical background

At the beginning of the 18th century, Philip V, the first Bourbon king of Spain, promulgated the Salic Law, which declared illegal the inheritance of the Spanish crown by women. His purpose was to thwart the Habsburgs' regaining the throne by way of the female dynastic line.

A century later, Ferdinand VII of Spain had no male descendant, but two daughters, Isabella (later known as Isabella II of Spain) and Luisa Fernanda. So he promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction, to allow Isabella to become Queen after his death, returning to traditional rules of Spanish succession.

Without the Pragmática Sanción, Carlos de Borbón, the king's brother, would have normally become king. He and his followers, such as Secretary of Justice Francisco Tadeo Calomarde, pressed Ferdinand to change his mind. But the ill Ferdinand kept his decision and when he died on 29 September 1833, Isabella became the legitimate queen. As she was only a child, a regent was needed: her mother, Queen Consort Maria Christina was appointed.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the political situation in Spain was extremely problematic. During the war of independence against Napoleon, the Cortes met in Cádiz (1812) and elaborated the first Spanish constitution, possibly the most modern and most liberal in the world. After the war, when Ferdinand VII returned to Spain, he annulled the constitution in the Manifest of Valencia, and became an absolute king, governing by decrees and restoring the Spanish Inquisition, abolished by Joseph I, brother of Napoleon I.

Towards the end of his life, Ferdinand made some concessions to the liberals, giving them hopes of a liberal rule. But there was a strong absolutist party which did not want to lose its position. Its members knew that Maria Christina and Isabella would make liberal reforms, so they looked for another candidate for the throne; and their natural choice, with the background of the Salic Law, was Ferdinand's brother Carlos. One historian has written that

“the first Carlist war was fought not so much on the basis of the legal claim of Don Carlos, but because a passionate, dedicated section of the Spanish people favored a return to a kind of absolute monarchy that they felt would protect their individual freedoms (fueros), their regional individuality and their religious conservatism.”[1]

A vivid summary of the war describes it as follows:

"The Christinos and Carlists thirsted for each other’s blood, with all the fierce ardour of civil strife, animated by the memory of years of mutual insult, cruelty, and wrong. Brother against brother – father against son – best friend turned to bitterest foe – priests against their flocks – kindred against kindred."[2]

The autonomy of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia had been abolished in the 18th century by the Nueva Planta Decrees that created a centralised Spanish state. Navarre, however, retained its self-governing status until 1833. The resentment against the loss of autonomy was considerably strong.

Basque reasons for Carlist uprising


Zones under Carlist military control (dark green) and areas where they found popular support (light green)

Meanwhile, the Spanish courtiers wanted to suppress the Basque Fueros and to move the customs borders to the Pyrenees. Since the 18th century, a new emergent class had an interest in weakening the powerful Basque nobles and their influence in commerce, including that extending throughout the world with the help of the Jesuit order.

The newly appointed Spanish courtiers supported some of the great powers against the Basques at least since the abolition of the Jesuit order and the Godoy regime. First they sided with the French Bourbons to suppress the Jesuits, following the formidable changes in North America after the victory of the United States in the American Revolutionary War and the subsequent loss of Spanish influence. Then Godoy sided with the English against the Basques in the War of the Pyrenees of 1793, and immediately afterwards with the French of Napoleon, also against the Basques. The English interest was to destroy, for as long as possible, Spanish commercial routes and power, which was mainly sustained by the Basque ports, commercial navy.

King Ferdinand VII found an important support base in the Basque Country. The Spanish king had the endorsement of the Basques guaranteed as long as he respected the Basque institutional and legal framework—it included at that time customs on the Ebro river. On his death in 1833, Isabel II was proclaimed queen, and during the same year a new Spanish institutional arrangement was designed by the incoming government in Madrid, homogenising Spanish administration according to provinces and conspicuously overruling Basque institutions. Anger and disbelief spread in the Basque districts.

The contenders

File:Doña Isabel II, niña (anónimo).jpg

Isabella II

File:María Cristina de Borbón-Dos Sicilias, reina de España.jpg

Maria Christina

The people of the western Basque provinces (ambiguously called "Biscay" up to that point) and Navarre sided with Carlos because ideologically Carlos was close to them and more importantly because he was willing to uphold Basque institutions and laws. Some historians claim that the Carlist cause in the Basque Country was a foralist cause, but others (Stanley G. Payne) contend that no connection to the emergence of Basque nationalism can be postulated. Many supporters of the Carlists cause believed a traditionalist rule would better respect the ancient region specific institutions and laws established under historical rights.

Another important reason for the massive mobilisation of the western Basque provinces and Navarre for the Carlist cause was the tremendous influence of the Basque clergy in the society. The Basque pro-fueros liberal class under the influence of the Enlightenment and ready for independence from Spain (and initially at least allegiance to France) was put down by the Spanish authorities at the end of the War of the Pyrenees (San Sebastián, Pamplona, etc.). As of then, the strongest partisans of the region specific laws were the rural based clergy, nobility and lower class—opposing new liberal ideas largely imported from France. Salvador de Madariaga, in his book Memories of a Federalist (Buenos Aires, 1967), accused the Basque clergy of being "the heart, the brain and the root of the intolerance and the hard line" of the Spanish Catholic Church.

Other social and economic causes have not been properly studied by historians, but Navarre and the rest of the Basque provinces held their customs on the Ebro river. Trade was strong with France (especially Navarre) and overseas, so when customs were carried to the Pyrenees and the coast after the First Carlist wars, the region was gripped by a wave of famine, and many took to overseas emigration.

File:Carlos María Isidro de Borbón.png

Carlos de Borbón

Meanwhile, in Catalonia and Aragón, the people saw the chance of recovering their foral rights, which were lost after the Spanish Succession War when Philip V defeated the armies that fought for Archduke Karl of Austria, the other candidate to the throne after the death of Charles II of Spain. Carlos never addressed the issue of the foral rights.

On the other side, the liberals and moderates united to defend the new order represented by María Cristina and her three-year-old daughter, Isabella. They controlled the institutions, almost the whole army, and the cities; the Carlist movement was stronger in rural areas. The liberals had the crucial support of United Kingdom, France and Portugal, support that was shown in the important credits to Cristina's treasury and the military help from the British (British Legion or Westminster Legion under General de Lacy Evans), the French (the French Foreign Legion), and the Portuguese (a part of the regular army, under General Barão das Antas). The Liberals were strong enough to win the war in two months. But, an inefficient government and the dispersion of the Carlist forces gave Carlos time to consolidate his forces and hold out for almost seven years in the northern and eastern provinces.

As Paul Johnson has written, "both royalists and liberals began to develop strong local followings, which were to perpetuate and transmute themselves, through many open commotions and deceptively tranquil intervals, until they exploded in the merciless civil war of 1936-39."[3]

The combatants

File:Infanteria Castellana-album.jpg

Carlist Forces

Both sides raised special troops during the war. The Liberal side formed the volunteer Basque units known as the Chapelgorris, while Tomás de Zumalacárregui created the special units known as aduaneros. Zumalacárregui also formed the unit known as Guías de Navarra from Liberal troops from La Mancha, Valencia, Andalusia and other places who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Alsasua (1834). After this battle, they had been faced with the choice of joining the Carlist troops or being executed.

The term Requetés was at first applied to just the Tercer Batallón de Navarra (Third Battalion of Navarre) and subsequently to all Carlist combatants.

The war attracted independent adventurers, such as the Briton C. F. Henningsen, who served as Zumalacárregui’s chief bodyguard (and later was his biographer), and Martín Zurbano, a contrabandista or smuggler, who

"soon after the commencement of the war sought and obtained permission to raise a body of men to act in conjunction with the queen’s troops against the Carlists. His standard, once displayed, was resorted to by smugglers, robbers, and outcasts of all descriptions, attracted by the prospect of plunder and adventure. These were increased by deserters..."[4]

About 250 foreign volunteers fought for the Carlists; the majority were French monarchists, but they were joined by men from Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Piedmont, and the German states.[5] Friedrich, Prince of Schwarzenberg fought for the Carlists, and had taken part in the French conquest of Algeria and the Swiss civil war of the Sonderbund. The Carlists' ranks included such men as Prince Felix Lichnowsky, Adolfo Loning, Baron Wilhelm Von Radhen and August Karl von Goeben, all of whom later wrote memoirs concerning the war.[5]

File:Tropas Reina 1-album.jpg

Liberal Forces

The Liberal generals, such as Vicente Genaro de Quesada and Marcelino de Oraá Lecumberri, were often veterans of the Peninsular War, or of the wars resulting from independence movements in South America. For instance, Jerónimo Valdés participated in the battle of Ayacucho (1824).

Both sides executed prisoners of war by firing squad; the most notorious incident occurred at Heredia, when 118 Liberal prisoners were executed by order of Zumalacárregui. The British attempted to intervene, and through Lord Eliot, the Lord Eliot Convention was signed on April 27–28, 1835.

The treatment of prisoners of the First Carlist War became regulated and had positive effects. A soldier of the British Legion wrote that:

"The British and Chapelgorris who fell into their hands [the Carlists], were mercilessly put to death, sometimes by means of tortures worthy of the North American Indians; but the Spanish troops of the line were saved by virtue, I believe, of the Eliot treaty, and after being kept for some time in prison, where they were treated with sufficient harshness, were frequently exchanged for an equal number of prisoners made by the Christinos."[6]

However, Henry Bill, another contemporary, wrote that, though

"it was mutually agreed upon to treat the prisoners taken on either side according to the ordinary rules of war, a few months only elapsed before similar barbarities were practiced with all their former remorselessness."[7]

The war in the Northern Front

File:Cordova-mapa Norte.jpg

Theater of operations of the Liberal Army of the North, May 1836

The war was long and hard, and the Carlist forces achieved important victories in the north under the direction of the brilliant general Tomás de Zumalacárregui. Opposing his advisers, Carlos V decided to conquer Bilbao, defended by the British navy. With such an important city in his power, the Prussian or Russian Tsarist banks would give him credit to win the war; one of the most important problems for Carlos was a lack of funds. In the siege of Bilbao, Zumalacárregui was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet. The wound was not serious, but it did not heal properly, and finally General Zumalacárregui died on June 25, 1835. Many historians believe the circumstances of his death were suspicious, and have noted that the general had many enemies in the Carlist court; however, nothing has been proven.[citation needed]

In the European theatre all the great powers backed the Isabeline army, as many British observers wrote in their reports. Meanwhile, in the east, Carlist general Ramón Cabrera held the initiative in the war, but his forces were too few to achieve a decisive victory over the liberal forces. In 1837 the Carlist effort culminated in the Royal Expedition, which reached the walls of Madrid, but subsequently retreated after the Battle of Aranzueque.

The war in the Southern Front

In the south, the Carlist general Miguel Gómez Damas attempted to establish a strong position there for the Carlists, and he left Ronda on November 18, 1836, entering Algeciras on November 22. But, after Gómez Damas departed from Algeciras, he was defeated by Ramón María Narváez y Campos at the Battle of Majaceite. An English commentator wrote that “it was at Majaciete that [Narváez] rescued Andalucía from the Carlist invasion by a brilliant coup de main, in a rapid but destruction action, which will not readily be effaced from the memory of the southern provinces.”[8]

At Arcos de la Frontera, the Liberal Diego de Leon managed to detain a Carlist column by his squadron of 70 cavalry until Liberal reinforcements arrived.

Ramon Cabrera had collaborated with Gómez Damas in the expedition of Andalusia where, after defeating the Liberals, he occupied Córdoba and Extremadura. He was pushed out after his defeat at Villarrobledo in 1836.

The end of the war


Map of Spain in 1854 after the First Carlist War. It shows the areas where different law systems, tax frontiers and military power applied, although unified after the First Carlist War.

After the death of Zumalacárregui in 1835, the Liberals slowly regained the initiative but were not able to win the war until 1839. They failed to recover the Carlist fortress of Morella and suffered a defeat at the Battle of Maella (1838).

The war in the North ended with the Convenio de Vergara, also known as the Abrazo de Vergara ("the Embrace of Vergara", Bergara in Basque) on 31 August 1839, between the Liberal general Baldomero Espartero, Count of Luchana and the Carlist General Rafael Maroto. Some authors have written that General Maroto was a traitor who forced Carlos to accept the peace with little focus as to the precise context in the Basque Country.

The war effort had taken a heavy toll on Basque economy and regional public finances with a population shaken by a myriad of war related plights—losses, poverty, disease—and tired with Carlos' own absolutist ambitions and disregard for their self-government. The moderate Jose Antonio Muñagorri negotiated as of 1838 a treaty in Madrid to put an end to war ("Peace and Fueros") leading to the Embrace of Vergara, ratified by Basque moderate liberals and disaffected Carlists across all the main cities and countryside. In the east, General Cabrera continued fighting, but he was alone and finally had to flee to France in July 1840. Considered a hero, Cabrera returned to Portugal in 1848 for the Second Carlist War.

Battles of the First Carlist War (Chronology)

  • Battle of Alsasua (April 22, 1834) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Alegría de Álava (October 27, 1834) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Venta de Echávarri (October 28, 1834) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Mendaza (December 12, 1834) - Liberal victory
  • First Battle of Arquijas (December 15, 1834) - Liberal victory
  • Second Battle of Arquijas (February 5, 1835) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Artaza (April 22, 1835) - Carlist victory
  • Lord Eliot Convention April 27–28, 1835 - British-sponsored agreement between Carlists and Liberals regarding treatment of prisoners
  • Battle of Mendigorría (July 16, 1835) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Arlabán (January 16–18, 1836) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Terapegui (April 26, 1836) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Villarrobledo (September 20, 1836) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Majaceite (November 23, 1836) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Luchana (December 24, 1836) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Oriamendi (March 16, 1837) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Huesca (March 24, 1837) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Villar de los Navarros (August 24, 1837) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Aranzueque (September 1837) - Liberal victory, end of Carlist campaign known as the Expedición Real
  • Battle of Maella (October 1, 1838) - Carlist victory
  • Battle of Peñacerrada (June 20–22, 1838) - Liberal victory
  • Battle of Ramales (May 13, 1839) - Liberal victory


  1. Bradley Smith, Spain: A History in Art (Gemini-Smith, Inc., 1979), 259.
  2. "Evenings at Sea," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 48, July–December 1840 (T. Cadell and W. Davis, 1840), 42.
  3. Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern World: Society 1815-1830 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 660.
  4. "A Night Excursion with Martin Zurbano," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 48, July–December 1840 (T. Cadell and W. Davis, 1840), 740.
  5. 5.0 5.1 19th Century bibliography of military history in the Basque Country
  6. Charles William Thompson, Twelve Months in the British Legion, by an Officer of the Ninth Regiment (Oxford University, 1836), 129.
  7. Henry Bill, The History of the World (1854), 142.
  8. T. M. Hughes, Revelations of Spain in 1845 (London: Henry Colburn, 1845), 124.

Further Reading

Alcala, Cesar and Dalmau, Ferrer A. 1a. Guerra Carlista. El Sitio de Bilbao. La Expedición Real (1835-1837). Madrid : Almena Ediciones, 2006.
Artola, Miguel. La España de Fernando VII. Madrid: Editorial Espasa-Calpe, 1999.
Atkinson, William C. A History of Spain and Portugal. Harmondsworth: Pen-guin Books, 1960.
Bergot, Erwan. La Legion. Paris: Ballard, 1972.
Bollaert, William. The Wars of Succession of Portugal and Spain, from 1826 to 1840. London: Edward Stanford, 1870. (2 volumes).
Brett, Edward M. The British Auxiliary Legion in the First Carlist War 1835-1838: A Forgotten Army. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005.
Bullen, Roger and Strong, Felicity (Eds.). Prime Minister Papers Series I. Palmerston: Private Correspondence with Sir George Villiers (afterwards 4th Earl of Clarendon) as Minister to Spain 1833-1837. London: Royal Commission of Historial Manuscripts, HMSO, 1985.
Burdiel, Isabel. Isabel II. Madrid: Santillana Ediciones, 2010.
Chambers, James. Palmerston: The People’s Darling. London: John Murray, 2004.
Clemente, Josep Carles. La Otra Dinastía: Los Reyes Carlistas en la España Contemporanea. Madrid: A. Machado Libros S.A., 2006. Condado, Emilio. La Intervención Francesa en España (1835-1839). Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 2002.
Coverdale, John F. The Basque Phase of Spain’s First Carlist War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
De Porras y Rodríguez de León, Gonzalo. La Expedición de Rodil y las Legiones Extranjeras en la Primera Guerra Carlista. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, 2004.
De Porras y Rodríguez de León, Gonzalo. Dos Intervenciones Militares Hispano-Portuguesas en las Guerras Civiles del Siglo XIX. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, 2001.
Dembowski, Karol. Deux Ans en Espagne et en Portugal, pendant la Guerre Civile, 1838-1840. Paris: Charles Gosselin, 1841.
Duncan, Francis. The English in Spain: The Story of the War of Succession between 1834 and 1840. London: John Murray, 1877.
Evans, Sir George De Lacy. Memoranda of the Contest in Spain. London: James Ridgway, 1840.
Fernandez Bastarreche, Fernando. Los Espadones Románticos. Madrid: Edito-rial Sintesis, 2007.
Garcia Bravo, Alberto; Salgado Fuentes, Carlos Javier. El Carlismo: 175 Años de Sufrida Represión. Madrid: Ediciones Arcos, 2008.
Geraghty, Tony. March or Die: France and the Foreign Legion. London: Graf-ton Books, 1986.
Henningsen, Charles Frederick. Zumalacarregui. Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe Argentina, 1947.
Holt, Edgar. The Carlist Wars in Spain. Chester Springs (Pennsylvania): Dufour Editions, 1967.
J.B. (Full name unknown). Relaçao Historica da Campanha de Portugal pelo Exercito Espanhol as Ordens do Tenente General D. Jose Ramon Rodil (1835). Published as part of D. Miguel et o Fim da Guerra Civil: Testemunhos. Lisbon: Caleidoscopio Edição, 2006.
Montagnon, Pierre. Histoire de la Legion. Paris: Pygmalion, 1999.
Moral Roncal, Antonio Manuel. Los Carlistas. Madrid: Arco Libros, 2002.
Moral Roncal, Antonio Manuel. Las Guerras Carlistas. Madrid: Silex Ediciones, 2006.
Nieto, Alejandro. Los Primeros Pasos del Estado Constitucional: Historia Administrativa de la Regencia de Maria Cristina. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel, 2006.
Oyarzun, Roman. Historia del Carlismo. Madrid: Ediciones Fe, 1939.
Perez Garzon, Juan Sisinio (Editor). Isabel II: Los Espejos de la Reina. Madrid: Marcial Pons Historia, 2004.
Pirala, Antonio. Historia de la Guerra Civil. Madrid: Turner SA / Historia 16, 1984. (6 Volumes).
Porch, Douglas. La Legion Etrangere 1831-1962. Paris: Fayard, 1994.
Rodriguez, Moises Enrique. Under the Flags of Freedom: British Mercenaries in the War of the Two Brothers, the First Carlist War and the Greek War of Independence (1821-1840). Lanham (Maryland): Hamilton Books, 2009.
Romanones, Conde de. Espartero: El General del Pueblo. Madrid: Ikusager Ediciones, 2007.
Shaw, Charles. Personal Memoirs & Correspondence of Col. Charles Shaw, comprising a Narrative of the War for Constitutional Liberty in Portugal and Spain. London: Henry Colburn Publishers, 1837. (2 Volumes).
Shelley, Ronald G. The British Legion in Spain during the First Carlist War. Brighton: Spanish Philatelic Society, 1975.
Somerville, Alexander. History of the British Legion and the War in Spain 1835-1837. London: James Pattie, 1839.
Spiers, Edward M. Radical General: Sir George de Lacy Evans 1787-1870. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983.
Urcelay Alonso, Javier. Cabrera: el Tigre del Maestrazgo. Madrid: Ariel, 2006.
Vidal Delgado, Rafael. Entre Logroño y Luchana: Campañas del General Espartero. Logroño (Spain): Instituto de Estudios Riojanos, 2004.
Villiers, George. A Vanished Victorian: George Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon 1800-70. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1938.
Webster, Charles K. The Foreign Policy of Palmerston 1830-1841. London: E. Bell & Sons, 1951. (2 volumes).
Wellard, James. The French Foreign Legion. London: George Rainbird Ltd., 1974.
Williams, Mark. The Story of Spain. Puebla Lucia (California): Mirador Publications, 1992.

External links