This is The Siècle, Supplemental 9: Thiers in Spain.

Welcome back to The Siècle. I know it’s been a while since the last episode, which is due mostly to the vicissitudes of my writing process. Interestingly, last August also saw a big unplanned gap in new episodes. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising when a French history podcast disappears for 5 weeks in August — except for the fact that France’s famous paid vacations originate in the 1930s,1 decades after the years covered in The Siècle.

My apologies to all of you, and especially those of you who are supporting me on Patreon. I’ve suspended your contributions for a month, because you’re not generously paying me to not produce podcasts. I’ve heard from several of you how much you’d appreciate a more regular release schedule, and I’ll do my best to provide one going forward.

You may have noticed that this is a bonus episode, not a scripted one. In fact the next scripted episode is nearly complete, but the content for this bonus episode I also had prepared fit better running before rather than after the upcoming Episode 23.

Below: Francisco Goya, “Portrait of Ferdinand VII of Spain in his robes of state,” 1815. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Francisco Goya - Portrait of Ferdinand VII of Spain in his robes of state (1815) - PradoThat content is another excerpt from a period book, one that ties together threads from multiple episodes of The Siècle: You might recall from Episode 17 how army officers in Spain had risen up in 1820 and imposed a liberal constitution on Spain’s unwilling King Ferdinand. In Episode 18, I explained how France in 1823 invaded Spain, defeating the liberals and restoring Ferdinand to absolute power. And in Episode 22, I mentioned in passing a journalistic innovation by a young writer named Adolphe Thiers, who had the wild idea to actually leave Paris and go in person to observe the biggest news story of the day.

Thiers’ 1822 trip to the Pyrenées Mountains produced a series of columns for the main liberal newspaper of the time, Le Constitutionnel, which were subsequently collected into a book. This volume was very quickly translated into English with the unwieldy but very precise title, The Pyrenées and the South of France during the months of November and December 1822,2 and that’s the work I’m going to be reading from today.

While there, Thiers observed the ongoing civil war in Spain between forces of the liberal government on one hand and conservative rebels on the other. He encountered refugees who had fled that civil war into France. And he observed the French soldiers present on the border, with the ostensible purpose of enforcing a quarantine or “cordon sanitaire” against an outbreak of yellow fever in Spain, but in practice there to observe and monitor the fighting. As the crisis escalated and France moved closer to war, this force would be expanded into the vanguard of an invading army.

His observations of these French soldiers are vital for our purposes, because the question of whether the French army would be loyal to the Bourbon regime was a crucial one as France contemplated intervening in Spain. It’s also vital for the upcoming Episode 23, which will look at domestic tensions in France about the army’s loyalty.

Before I begin, I’ll provide a little bit of background on a few points, because Thiers has a habit of referring in passing to names and events that were common knowledge at the time, but which are almost completely forgotten today. My thanks to listener Rasmus for helping my Spanish pronunciations go from atrocious to merely very bad.

First, Thiers mentions the “Regency of Urgel.” That’s the name of the Spanish royalist rebels, who had set up shop in the city of La Seo de Urgel near the Spanish border, and proclaimed they were ruling Spain as regents for the imprisoned King Ferdinand.

One of the regency’s primary leaders was a royalist politician named Bernardo Mozo de Rosales, the Marquis of Mataflorida;3 you’ll meet him soon enough.

Thiers alternately refers to this royalist rebellion as “the Regency,” as “Urgel,” and as “the Faith,” referring to the prominent role of traditionalist Catholics in the anti-liberal uprising. Many of the refugees Thiers encounters along the French border are Spanish monks.

While the Regency of Urgel had the blessing of King Ferdinand, it was not recognized by Ferdinand’s would-be allies, the French government of King Louis XVIII, who would dissolve it soon after invading.4

Opposing the Regency of Urgel in the fighting along the border was Francisco Espoz y Mina, a guerilla leader of liberal tendencies who had fought against Napoleon and was now aligned with the liberal government. This liberal government was associated with the city of Cadiz, where the mutiny that spurred it to power kicked off. Cadiz was also the city where Spain’s emergency government, the “Cortes,” had holed up when resisting Napoleon’s invasion, and where they had promulgated the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1812. This constitution was the focus of Spanish politics in this era, being abolished by Ferdinand in 1814, reestablished by the revolutionary government in 1820, and abolished again after the French invasion in 1823.

It’s worth keeping in mind Thiers’ point of view as you listen. Thiers is a proud Frenchman with an open bias in favor of his own country, and against Spain. He is a liberal, so he is naturally inclined to look relatively favorably on Spain’s liberal government, and skeptically on the aristocrats and clerics leading the royalist side. The role of the Catholic Church and churchmen comes in for particular focus and scorn here. That’s worth keeping in mind when judging how much of this work you should believe, but also to understand attitudes toward the Catholic Church in Restoration France. We’ll be delving more deeply into that in a future episode or two, but for now know that while Catholicism had millions of ardent defenders, anti-clerical sentiment was also widespread in many areas.

Finally, it’s not always clear in these dispatches what Thiers actually witnessed himself, and what he’s relaying from other sources.

ThiersyoungYou might also want to keep in mind, as you listen to this narration, what Thiers was like as a person. A friend of his at the time passed on the following description:

The smallness of his stature, the extreme plainness of his features, which were half hidden under an enormous pair of spectacles, his peculiar pronunciation, and his singular habit of constantly shrugging his shoulders, and dancing (or, as a New Englander would say, tetering) at every word, and an absolute lack of the ordinary graces of manner, made him appear a being apart from all others. But when he spoke, you could not refrain from admiring his wit and vivacity, the glow of his… imagination, and the vastness of his attainments.5

Above: Tony Goutière, “Sketch of a young Adolphe Thiers.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Thiers is also, as you shall see very shortly, frequently sarcastic. Much of what he writes isn’t meant to be taken literally, and I’ll do my best to capture his irony in my narration.

Finally, my thanks to some fellow history podcasters who lent their voices to some of the dialogue Thiers included in his book — sparing you from having to listen to me converse with myself. In a few minutes you’ll hear from Derek of the Hellenistic Age Podcast, Allen of the Political History of the United States podcast, and Bry of Pontifacts. Be sure to check out their shows if you’re not already familiar.

You’ve waited long enough; let’s get right into the book, which picks up with Thiers on the French side of the Franco-Spanish border.

Perpignan - Ecole militaire (vers 1780)I arrived6 at Perpignan on a remarkably fine and mild morning, and immediately walked through the town. It is an ancient place which was always fortified, because it is the passage between Roussillon and Catalonia…

Left: Military school in Perpignan, circa 1780. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The monks, who are the forerunners of every emigration, swarmed at Perpignan, and preceded the Regency. At Narbonne, I had already met the capuchins, with their ample brown flowing robes, their large hoods hanging down to the middle of the back, their rosary, and their head and feet bare. At Perpignan I saw monks of all colors; black, blue, white, grey, and reddish brown; the curés in large greatcoats and immense French hats. You remark a singular habit in them when you meet them; they followed you with their eyes, as if ready to answer a question, and their extended hand seemed ready to bless you.

I soon learnt that in Spain, they bless all the peasants, who prostrate themselves before them, and I understood that they were inclined to be equally generous in France as in their own country. Two of them, with whom I conversed, said carelessly, ‘The Spaniards like it, and we give it to them. In France they to do not care for it, and we keep it to ourselves.” In general I did not find them very fanatical. They have a kind of indolence which excludes violent sentiments. They are very little affected by the diminution of the king’s power, but the happy theocratic influence which they enjoyed has been disturbed. The convents of several of them have been visited, the majority has suffered for the crimes of a few, and they have fled; in no great hurry, however, and contented with the quiet and easy pace of their smiles.

…It may be supposed that amidst all this bustle, political conversations, conjectures and the question, “Will there be war or not?” are not spared: and though people are silent now, in almost the whole of France, when you come near the frontiers, at the sight of the Spanish monks, the political sentiments long suppressed find vent… At an inn where there was a throng of them, I heard at table the following conversation:


“OTHER VOICE”:8 “Poor indeed! Why did they not remain quiet at home?”

COMPASSIONATE REASONER: “What, sir, should those unfortunate people stay to be put to death?”

OTHER VOICE: “No, certainly, but why provoke it?”

COMPASSIONATE REASONER: “Ah! you are one of those reasoners. But whatever you may say, France will not permit—”

OTHER VOICE: “What has France to do in such a quarrel? If she has given an asylum to the conquered, what can humanity require more?”

COMPASSIONATE REASONER: “What! France has no business to interfere? When our neighbor’s house is on fire, shall we remain tranquil spectators?”

OTHER VOICE: “But if this should be one of those fires which are increased by the attempts to put it out, why should we interfere?”

…During this discussion, the landlady, a good woman with a pious look and downcast eyes, appeared to be impatient; I thought that she was praying for the intervention in favor of the monks; but at last addressing me who had said nothing… “Sir,” said she9, “it must be agreed that there are too many of these monks, and that a few less would be better; surely everybody prays, and nobody works in Spain?” I was surprised at these economical views in the good woman, who appeared to me very devout, but I soon perceived that the devotion of the place would have no objection to a reduction in this monkish militia, and I found it the same wherever these fugitives had been received.

At the moment of my arrival, news had been received of the late defeats of the Regency, and of the flight of the insurgents into the French territory. I heard the mountaineers speaking of it with warmth… Every one told his own story, but all spoke with wonder of the cavalry of Mina, which they said, “ran upon the points of the rocks.” Without being so miraculous, it is certain that this cavalry traverses the mountains with surprising rapidity and ease.

They also announced the approach of several generals, the Regency itself, and above all, el rey Mata-Florida, so the peasants here called him.

I was anxious to get to the place where these celebrated insurgents were to be seen. After travelling very rapidly, towards nightfall, I met with the first encampment, in a small field, at the foot of the mountains, and in the midst of the snow. I never saw a more melancholy, and more original sight. It was distinguished at a distance by the floating standards of [French] lancers, who were placed as sentinels at the four corners of this itinerant village. Twelve or fifteen hundred poor creatures, men, women, children, and old people, were stretched upon the ground, with their baggage spread out; some were lying on a little straw, others added their clothes, and endeavoured to make beds of them…

They had just received their rations, which they were greedily devouring. Some, who were not so poor as the rest, had added a little salt meat, but the greater number washed it down with the water of the stream, which flowed at a little distance. The women, in particular, excited my compassion by an air of despondency and suffering, which was not seen in the men. I saw them taking their children from their backs and putting them to the breast, to give them milk. The poor creatures, heated by fatigue, exhausted by a long journey, surprised by a new country, and especially by an inclemency of climate, unknown on the south side of the Pyrenees, seemed to be the exclusive victims of the evils of civil war, and paying the penalty of the turbulent dispositions of their husbands. The latter were not melancholy; like defeated fanatics, nothing seemed to give them any uneasiness but hunger; and I saw this uneasiness disappear in most of them, in proportion as their soldier’s bread10 was devoured. They then threw themselves one after the other on the ground on which they reposed…

By the light of this fire I observed them one after the other; and by means of signs, and a slight acquaintance with the patois of Roussillon… I asked them some questions. Some were hunters, others shepherds, and others called themselves traders. I was wondering how it was possible that these men could have anything to do with trade, when I learnt that to trade meant, in the language of the country, to convey contraband goods across the mountains, the snows, and the lines of the custom-house. I soon saw of what calibre these soldiers were. I spoke to them of the faith, and of the king, but they seemed unmoved. The names of their chiefs affected them more, which is natural enough, for in them they had something known and real…

Until they acquire a home and the means of regular subsistence, they will fly with joy to the first signal which is given them from the mountains. We need not therefore be at all surprised at the facility with which the Regency of Urgel has drawn some villages into insurrection. But if insurrection is easy, the case is otherwise as to its success and duration. In fact, when the Regency thought proper to appoint ministers and generals, and to attempt a regular campaign, it was beaten.

It will be said that it might have done against Mina what the Cortes of Cadiz did against Bonaparte. To this there is but one reply. These guerillas, who have risen for a moment in the Pyrenees, are good for nothing against their own countrymen, in whom there is nothing to excite their passions; on the contrary, the sight of a stranger, differing from themselves in language, dress, and countenance, animates them even to fury… These guerillas, who are so weak against Mina, will therefore be very formidable to foreigners.

My guide had told me when we set out that we should meet el rey Mata-Florida. In fact, the pages of the Regency soon announced his approach… We were climbing a flight of steps, which extending along the side of a hill, turned towards its summit and descended on the opposite side… I perceived a group of several individuals, who appeared to ascend it with difficulty on foot. A man between fifty and sixty years of age, of middle stature, pale, thin and stooping, with his eyes red; wearing a black cap, and a brown great coat, was leaning upon two other persons, and apparently dragging himself along with the greatest difficulty. My guide at this sight called out to me: “El rey, el rey Mata-Florida.”

Below: Bernardo Mozo de Rosales, the Marquis of Mataflorida. Austrian National Library via Europeana.

Marquis de Mataflorida

At these words, I looked more attentively at this person, who was proceeding with so much difficulty. His situation was truly calculated to excite compassion. I could not help regretting the ambitious and turbulent humor which had thrown a man of his age, destitute of genius or energy, amidst the hazards of a civil war, and the difficulties of the winter and the mountains. His [entourage] was not less characteristic: three or four mean-looking and ill-dressed individuals walked by his side; these were the great officers of the Regency. One of them, who was pretty far advanced in years, very tall, wearing an enormously large French hat, covered with oil-skin, and carrying a bundle under his arm, kept a little on one side; he was a minister, I know not of what department. Behind him was a tall capuchin, in a long robe, who seemed to represent the altar near the throne…

Mata-Florida was but a few years ago a very obscure lawyer at Madrid, who drew up, or at least signed, the address presented in 1814… to Ferdinand, petitioning him to abolish the constitution of the Cortes… Mata-Florida was particularly distinguished, created a marquis, and afterwards made a minister, which is not surprising in times of revolution, when people so soon rise from nothing…

Mata-Florida soon after left Madrid, and having since repaired to the mountains of Catalonia, has all at once made himself regent and prince, and in the imagination of the people is almost a king. In fact, this is the only title given him in the mountains. Two citizens, …happening to fall in with Mata-Florida, first became his secretaries; then, certain journals styling them ministers, they accepted the title, and called themselves excellencies. In this manner was this Regency formed, and by the aid of distance, it has appeared to be something; but it never had any real importance, except in the minds of the combatants whom it excited.

I arrived at the Col de la Perche, which is a kind of slope made across a rather low ledge of rocks. This ledge separates Mount-Louis from the basin of Cerdagne. A cold and cutting wind blew in our faces, but did not prevent me from contemplating the fine hollow which composes Cerdagne, upon which the eyes of France and Europe have been lately so anxiously directed. The Segre, a small river, crosses it from North to South, and constitutes in part the division between the French and Spanish parts of Cerdagne…

Caludio Linati lithographerThe evening before, news had been brought of the approach of an advanced division of Mina. This division consisting of a thousand or twelve hundred men, came up on the 28th of November, at nine o’clock in the morning. It was commanded by Count Linati11, a Piedmontese, who had served in the French army with distinction. On his arrival at Puycerda, he divided his small detachment into three corps, and after a single discharge of musketry, entered the town without the least resistance. The number of the soldiers of the Faith was about three thousand… Although they were three times more numerous than the Constitutionalists, had the advantage of the ground, and were in no want of ammunition, they abandoned the field at once…

Left: Claudio Linati, Italian painter, lithographer, soldier and activist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Our army was drawn up in line of battle on the banks of the Sègre from an early hour in the morning, in order to wait the result of the attack, and to prevent the French territory from being violated. The soldiers of the Faith retreated behind our troops, and took advantage of the shelter thus afforded them to keep on firing. It is presumed that their intention was to compromise the French army with the Constitutionalists. Count Linati immediately ordered the firing to cease, and sent to inform our generals that his intentions and his orders were not to violate the French territory, but he required that the fugitives should be immediately disarmed, that our army might not be placed between the two fires… The bands of the Faith that were already on our territory were immediately disarmed, and our soldiers, indignant at their [precipitous] flight, did it with considerable harshness…

General Francisco Espoz y Mina (by anonymous author)Mina arrived shortly afterwards with the rest of his army. He might have about five thousand men at Puycerda. I went to this latter town, which is certainly one of the dirtiest in Spain, where they are all very filthy. I entered it without any difficulty, though I had no passport for Spain; I was not even examined at the custom-house. The Constitutional party were resolved that the French should not be worse treated by them than by the insurgents… I saw the constitutional army drawn up in line, to be reviewed. It was not clothed like ours; it did not form so regular and geometrical a whole; above all, there was not the same cleanliness; but the soldiers had all uniform caps, coats, and great-coats; they wore, with out exception, shoes or spartillas; they had not at their backs a good leather knapsack like ours, but instead of it, they had a linen wallet, tied at the ends, hanging over their shoulders, which held baggage enough for them. Their ranks were not so regular; but in comparison with the bands of the Faith, they formed a perfect whole; and in comparison with our own army, they were very old soldiers.

Above: Francisco Espoz y Mina. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

These little districts were [now] much animated by the presence and continual movements of [French] troops. The corps of observation, formerly the sanitary cordon, is now formed into three divisions, the principal stations of which are at Perpignan, Toulouse, and Bayonne. The regiments are distributed at the entrances of the great valleys, and are placed in cantonments in the interior, to the last inhabited points. In winter, as the snow descends, the troops retire into the plain, and guard only the principal openings, which are then the only ones that are passable. I frequently took refuge in the hovels where our soldiers, who mounted guard, were sheltering themselves…

Our troops have a very satisfactory appearance; with respect to their discipline and equipment, they were never better clothed or better fed, and it must be admitted that more pains are taken to satisfy the army than the public opinion. The military administration is said to be better than ever, which may be easily conceived. The numerous administrators, who were formed amidst the greatest difficulties of war, find it much more easy to… apply the knowledge they have acquired in the midst of peace and tranquillity. Persons so long accustomed to feed and clothe our troops, and to prepare hospitals for them, during the continual and rapid movements of victory or defeat, and the confusion of battle, and in the midst of a hostile country, must naturally do the same things much more easily in France, during a period of perfect tranquillity.

There is no longer a single veteran among our soldiers; the oldest has no advantage over the others, but that of having made the soup for the last four years… We find among them only countrymen eating better soup, and dressed in better clothes than in their native village; and nevertheless anxious to return home as soon as they can. There are no longer to be seen among them the venerable countenances, or the original manners of our old grenadiers, with their sprightly jokes on their long marches, on the dangers they had escaped, and on the Great Man,12 who had gained such an ascendancy over their imagination… The sub-lieutenants and lieutenants are almost all young men; the captains and superior officers are mostly officers of the old [Imperial] army. These last are reserved and silent, and express no decided opinions.

It is in vain to conceal it, and silence on this subject would be useless and foolish. There are two opinions in France, which may be disguised under different names, but are always perfectly distinguishable: the one desirous of the return of the past without exception, the other dreading and doing everything to prevent that return. In this conflict the army may have an opinion, and a soldier who thinks will not be prevented from feeling and wishing as a man. The old army was for its general13, which was perfectly natural. This general is no more; the army is no longer what it was; the opinion which it constituted has vanished, or what remains of it is only an historical admiration of the greatest man of modern times. The new army which has succeeded to the old one, is quite indifferent to everything, from the soldier to the subaltern; and when you talk to it of a return to religion and to legitimacy, it no more comprehends what is said than if you were to talk to it of liberty and human perfectibility. Let people cry out as they will, all these things are very well in their way, but they are not understood in a certain quarter. The army will not have an opinion, ‘till an attempt is made to make it do things repugnant to French dispositions.

There remain the officers who are immediately dependant on the government, and who espouse the opinion of the Minister of War more warmly, because their rank brings them nearer to him. But sub-lieutenants, lieutenants and captains are at a great distance from him, and much nearer to their soldiers than to the war-minister. They are silent however, because they cannot prevail upon themselves to speak ill of their departed general, and… neither do they venture to speak in favor of the new institutions — first, because they have little inclination for abstract discussion, and second, because they may be overheard…

There was at this time at Bayonne a singular variety of conflicting reports. Numbers of Spaniards were arriving from all quarters of the Peninsula. According to some, that atrocious [liberal] government could not last much longer; the nation regarded it with horror; it was without power, and yet it committed unheard of acts of violence, which nobody prevented. Those who spoke thus certainly did not come from Madrid, of which they talked so much, but from the frontier, where they had been beaten by this powerless government. There were others, whom the noise and agitation seemed to terrify not a little, who said it was a pity that the parties could not agree, that they would not be appeased, and make reciprocal concessions, and live in peace and liberty. These were most violently refuted by the preceding…

Lastly, there were some ancient admirers of the Cadiz legislators, full of tranquil pride, who exhibited a sovereign contempt for their enemies, both within and without, and placing on a level the Regency of Urgel and the Congress of Verona said that they might make war upon them, that they might enter their country, and that it was not their custom to oppose them, but — “No importa,”14 added they, smoking their Havana cigars, and carelessly puffing the smoke. “No importa.” I wished them to explain themselves; but without losing more words, they said “Let them try,” and resuming their cigar, paid no more attention to me.

Of course, as we know from Episode 18, France did invade, swatted aside Spanish opposition easily, and restored Ferdinand to power, despite the fears that such an invasion would have led to a quagmire such as Napoleon had faced.

But Thiers’ observations about the loyalties of France’s army would prove important, and not just when those regiments marched off to war. The early 1820s also saw King Louis XVIII facing troubling reports about soldiers back home. Learn more next time in Episode 23: Charbonnerie.

  1. Gary Cross, “Vacations for All: The Leisure Question in the Era of the Popular Front,” Journal of Contemporary History 24, no. 4 (1989), 599-621. 

  2. Adolphe Thiers, The Pyrenees and the South of France, During the Months of November and December 1822, translator unknown (London: Treuttel and Würtz, Treuttel, Jun. and Richter, 1823). 

  3. Alternately spelled Mata-Florida 

  4. The London and Paris Observer: Or Weekly Chronicle of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, vol. 3 (Jan. 21, 1827), 33. 

  5. L.P. Brockett, The year of battles: a history of the Franco-German war of 1870-‘71. Embracing also Paris under the Commune; or, The red rebellion of 1871. A second reign of terror, murder, and madness. (New York: H.S. Goodspeed & Co., 1871), 637

  6. This paragraph, and the two that follow, come from a different chapter of the book than the ones that follow them, but I inserted this excerpt here because it fit better in the abridged narrative 

  7. Voiced by Allen Ayers of The Politial History of the United States podcast. 

  8. Voiced by Derek of The Hellenistic Age Podcast

  9. Voiced by Bry Jensen of Pontifacts

  10. Literally “pain de munition” 

  11. Claudio Linati, 1790-1832, a painter, lithographer, soldier and activist. 

  12. Napoleon 

  13. Napoleon 

  14. “Never mind”