Floridablanca and the Spanish Armada of 1779

José Monino, 1st Count of Floridablanca, was born in Murcia on 21st October 1728 and later rose to become the chief minister of King Charles III of Spain. (He also served briefly during the reign of King Charles IV). Many people looked upon him as being the greatest Spanish politician and statesman of the 18th Century and he was someone who saw good relations with Great Britain as being of supreme importance. Ironically, for someone who wanted to be friendly with Britain, once he was in power in Spain, Floridablanca spent much of his time leading the Spanish in a great war against the British and in 1779, he helped organise a little-known joint French-Spanish Armada whose object was to actually invade and conquer the British Isles!

Count Floridablanca c. 1776 (by Pompeo Batoni) Art Institute of Chicago
Count Floridablanca c. 1776 (by Pompeo Batoni) Art Institute of Chicago

The Murcian-born statesman was the son of a retired army officer who spent the early part of his education in Murcia and Orihuela and later went on to study law at the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218 and consequently the oldest university in the Hispanic world. Monino became a criminal prosecutor in Castile during 1766 and came to the notice of Charles III when he secured the Pope’s support for the Spanish government’s decision to expel the Jesuits from Spain in 1767. Monino was rewarded by being given the title of Conde de Floridablanca in 1773 and in 1777 he achieved the absolute pinnacle of Spanish politics when he became King Charles III’s Chief Minister.

The Murcian chief minister of the king achieved much while he was in power, pursuing centralist policies which ruffled quite a few feathers and antagonised regional interests and factions. Monino reformed the Spanish bureaucracy to an extent by creating a Supreme Council of State in 1787, which acted as a true cabinet. He also set about rebuilding much of Madrid, gave the Spanish American colonies more economic freedom, modernised aspects of the educational system and launched the National Bank of San Carlos in 1782 (which later became the Bank of Spain). 

As chief minister, Floridablanca’s most crucial role was to establish and maintain Spain’s relations with other countries across the world. At the heart of Floridablanca’s early foreign policy was the desire for good relations with Great Britain. This desire for warm relations with the British, however, didn’t last for long, because under Floridablanca’s leadership Spain went to war with Britain, in alliance with France, in order to support the American colonists who had broken away from Britain in 1776, at the start of the American War of Independence. On 16th June 1779, Spain actually declared war on Britain and immediately laid siege to Gibraltar. More importantly, Floridablanca and his ministers plotted a virtually unknown invasion of England in co-operation with the French. 

Floridablanca’s intended invasion plans involved the creation of what might be termed a ‘second Spanish Armada’. The Murcian statesman oversaw the gathering together of thirty-six Spanish ships of the line during summer 1779 and these ships were then going to link up with thirty French ships at Corunna and sail for the English Channel. Once in the Channel, the sixty-six strong fleet was instructed to escort a great armada of 400 transport ships, carrying 37,000 French troops, from the ports of Le Havre and Brest, to the English coast. This large invasion force was, with encouragement from Spanish diplomats, directed to occupy the Isle of Wight and take over the key port of Portsmouth. Floridablanca’s government then wanted to swap Portsmouth for Gibraltar in any subsequent peace talks.

José_Moñino (Count Floridablanca) c. 1783 Prado Museum
José_Moñino (Count Floridablanca) c. 1783 Prado Museum

Nothing ever came of these grand plans, because the intended French-Spanish campaign of 1779 really became a case of ‘the invasion that never was’. The French fleet under the Comte D’Orvilliers, who was the commander of the combined fleet, sailed home in September 1779 without ever picking up the invasion troops from Le Havre and Brest. Left on their own, Spanish naval forces also retired to their home ports. The invasion of England was cancelled! The French blamed the Spanish for the failure – Spanish ships were roughly six weeks late for their rendezvous with the French and as a consequence, French sailors and ships began to run out of water and food. Spanish ships also (allegedly) found it difficult to sail at speed and in formation. What the Spanish thought about these claims is difficult to determine. 

Despite the debacle of the failed invasion of England, in other respects Floridablanca did quite well from his policy of war with Britain. In the peace treaty of 1782, for example, Florida and Menorca, which had both been captured by British forces, were returned to Spain. The army officer’s son from Murcia survived as Spain’s most powerful politician and statesman until 1792, when he was toppled by the Aragonese faction at Court, which included the Queen’s lover Manuel de Godoy. 

Painting of Francisco_Moñino brother of Count Floridablanca by Francisco Folch de Cardona (1797 -1808)
Painting of Francisco_Moñino brother of Count Floridablanca by Francisco Folch de Cardona (1797 -1808)

Floridablanca’s fall from grace was certainly spectacular. He was arrested, charged with embezzlement, found guilty and imprisoned in Pamplona Castle for the next three years. In 1795, he was exonerated of all charges and released from custody, chiefly as a result of the tireless efforts of his brother, Francisco Monino. An exhausted Count of Floridablanca retired to a life of seclusion on his extensive estates, but briefly returned to national prominence in 1808, when Napoleon’s French armies invaded Spain. Floridablanca briefly headed the Spanish government’s resistance to France before he died, aged eighty, on 30th December 1808. He left behind him few written works or memorials, though curiously, the plant genus Monnina was named after him.

Little remembered now, José Monino, 1st Count of Floridablanca, was probably the most powerful Murcian of the entire 18th Century.

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