The Abdication of the throne of Spain by Felipe V (1724)

Originally posted to ATR on October 1996

The abdication of Felipe V (Philippe de France, duc d'Anjou) as king of Spain in 1724 has occasionally been misinterpreted in the context of the debates between legitimists and orleanists.

The abdication had been planned for a long time, and was the consequence of a solemn vow made in July 1720 to renounce the world, a vow repeated several times since. The religious motives behind the abdication are made clear in the king's announcement; although they were doubted at the time, and a lot of second-guessing took place, modern biographies have no reservations on this point (see for example Jose Calvo Poyato, Yves Bottineau, John Bergamini). When Luis I died after a few months, it took a good deal of effort to convince Felipe V to return to the throne. If anyone really doubts his religious motives (which are documented in Felipe's own hand), an alternative explanation can always be found in that sovereign's well-known bouts of depression, and his feelings of inadequacy.

This episode is sometimes confused with another one that took place in 1728, at which time Felipe V was back on the throne. Louis XV's health had not always been good. On February 20, 1725 a sharp fever sent tremors through the court. It brought home to the duke of Bourbon, who was prime minister at the time, that very little separated the throne from the duke of Orléans, who was his arch-rival. Louis XV had been betrothed since 1722 to his first cousin, the Infanta Maria Ana Vitoria (1718-81), daughter of Philip V. She had been living at the French court since March 1722, where she was called "l'Infante-Reine". Given her age, however, it was clear that Louis XV would not have a child by her for a while. On March 11 1725, the decision was taken to send back the Infanta to Spain and find a bride for Louis XV who would be closer in age. This move had disastrous diplomatic consequences. The Spanish royal family was outraged, sent back to France the dowager queen (widow of Luis I) and her sister Mlle de Beaujolais who was engaged to Philip V's sone Carlos (they were sisters of the duke of Orléans). On May 27, Louis XV announced that he was marrying Marie Lesczynska. The marriage took place in September 1725. The queen's first pregnancy in 1727 resulted in twin daughters (born in August).

In 1726, with still no heir apparent to the throne of France, it seems that Felipe V and his wife Elisabeth Farnese decided to prepare the ground for a return to France in case Louis XV should die without heirs. They entrusted this delicate mission to a priest, the abbe de Montgon, who went to Paris in Jan 1727 and sounded out two people: the duc de Bourbon, who had been Prime Minister from 1723 until his abrupt sacking in 1726, (and who had been responsible for the rupture with Sapin in 1725), and the cardinal Fleury, who was the current Prime Minister. Both responded favorably to the project. It is through Montgon's memoirs and corroborating documents in Spanish archives that this is known.

On October 27, 1728, Louis XV was found to have the small-pox. The news reached Madrid a few days later, followed by no news at all for a week. Felipe V, who had been in one of his long bouts of depression (to the point that he actually sent out an abdication message, quickly intercepted by his wife), launched into a flurry of activity, sending letters to Fleury, the duc de Bourbon, with instructions to inform the Paris parlement, in the event of Louis XV's death, that he was claiming the throne; and he was already making preparations for the trip to France, when news came that Louis XV's life had never been in danger. Felipe V stayed in Spain and had to rely on Farinelli's divine singing to cure his depression.

This episode is used as an argument by legitimists. They argue from these documents that Felipe V did not recognize the validity of the renunciations, that he was willing to claim the throne, and that he had significant support (overwhelming, they say), in France.

True, Felipe V was ready to claim the throne of France. A few months earlier he was ready to disclaim that of Spain for the second time. As for his beliefs on Utrecht, he wrote in november 1728 to the Pope, worried that his solemn vows on a stack of bibles might be a bit difficult to break; and, in that letter, he admits that he made that renunciation "de tres bon coeur". A manuscript note of Felipe V, dating from sometime before 1715, confirms that he was personally committed, having repeated the renunciation of his own volition, in the privacy of his conscience, before the Holy Sacrament, and while communing. The fact that the episode took place in 1728, when he was on the throne, gives it a whole different meaning. Felipe V did not abdicate Spain to receive France. In fact, in the flurry of documents sent out in November 1728, no mention whatsoever is made of what would happen to the crown of Spain. Felipe V might have believed that renunciations to the throne of France were impossible, but he was considering renouncing France for one of his sons as a possibility in his letter to the Pope. So much for this manic-depressive's constitutional authority. If his desire to reclaim the throne of France in 1728 is constitutional evidence against the Utrecht renunciations, what are we to make of his well-established, full and personal commitment to those renunciations?

As for the immense party Felipe V had in France, well, we find a disgraced prime minister, who could well hope to regain his former job (indeed, Felipe V's plans in case of his accession included a ministership shared by Fleury and the duc de Bourbon) and a handful of low-level conspirators, all of them convinced that they have all of France behind them... One memoir to Felipe V on the situation in France is much more straightforward, and makes clear that the latter's party is far from overwhelmingly numerous.

What about Fleury? The Prime Minister responded favorably to Montgon's overtures in 1727; at which time he was trying to mend fences with Spain and restore the alliance. Fleury's belated reply to Felipe V's hysterical actions in November 1728 was polite and ambiguous. He refused to answer Felipe V's letter since the emergency had passed, and added: "All I can say to your Majesties is that I shall always be faithful to the blood of Louis XIV, and that I shall never fail in what requires from me my ancient and respectful attachment to the Catholic King, his grandson." One can read what one wants in this, that is exactly why it was written this way. Legitimist writers cite this as evidence that Fleury believed in Felipe V's rights. They omit to mention that Fleury sent to Felipe V a memorandum in 1729 outlining his position, and deciding in favor of the house of Orleans... I don't think too much conviction it to be found in Fleury's diplomatic maneuvering.

All of the above is to be found in an article by Alfred Baudrillart, "Les pretensions de Philippe V a la couronne de France", Revue des Questions Historiques, 1887, 41:96-149 (download here in PDF image format (2.6Mb)).

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