If the 17th Century had been something of a disaster for Murcia, there were signs at its end of the situation improving. Unfortunately, the beginning of the next century reversed the optimism when Murcia was thoroughly caught up in what was effectively Europe’s first great modern war – The War of Spanish Succession.
In British eyes, this was more of a war against the traditional ‘enemy’ France, despite its name. However, it arose simply over competing European dynastic claims to the throne of Spain and a great fear, especially in Britain, that this could see the uniting of the French and Spanish crowns. It all began when King Carlos (Charles) II of Spain died in 1700 without a direct heir. Even though the war was very much a European one, for Spain it was also a Civil War. Thus, Valencia, unlike Murcia, strongly supported the claim to the Spanish throne of Archduke Charles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as did Britain and the Low Countries. Murcia, however, wholeheartedly supported the French Bourbon cause and the claim of Philip, Duke of Anjou.
In Murcia itself, there is a curious interest for those of us from the British Isles. The beginning of the war generally saw the Hapsburg cause in the ascendancy. If the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in central Europe in 1704 is well known, a rather less remarked event was the taking of Cartagena by Admiral Lake and an English squadron in 1706. Yecla was sacked by an army composed of English, Dutch and Portuguese troops under the command of Henry, Duke of Galway. Strangely, the Duke of Galway, was a one-armed French Protestant. He was originally Henri de Massue, a French nobleman, soldier and diplomat, who came to England after the expulsion of the Huguenots from France and entered the service of William III and was, for some time, his Commander-in-Chief in Ireland.
However, if a Frenchman leading the English and Hapsburg troops against the French and Spanish was strange, it seems even more weird that, at the ensuing Battle of Almansa, near Albacete, on 25th April 1707, Lord Galway was opposed by French and Spanish forces led by Lord Berwick, an Englishman! James Fitzjames, the Duke of Berwick, was the illegitimate son of King James II by Arabella Churchill. Just to make things even more interesting, Arabella was, of course, the sister of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, the victor of Blenheim. So here we have the English (and others) under a French commander, fighting the French (and Spanish) under an Englishman, who was the nephew of the most famous British soldier of the era! Anyway, the Bourbons were successful at Almansa which saw thousands dead and captured, but also brought peace to the region, much to the profit of Murcia which had strongly supported the winning cause. The wider War of Spanish Succession did not end until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht saw Felipe V confirmed as the new King of Spain, but at the cost of most of Spain’s European territories.
It was the time when Gibraltar was ceded to Britain.
Murcia prospered in the 18th Century and, with the new Bourbon monarchy rewarding the city, came many new building projects including the flood defences and walkway of the Malecón, tree lined avenues and a system of drainage for the first time since the Moors. It was also the time of the flowering of Murcian baroque architecture as wealth increased, including the magnificent façade of the Cathedral. Many of the principal families built new urban houses or palaces, a number of which can be viewed today. Then, there was that most famous of all Murcian sculptors, Francisco Salzillo whose work can be seen especially in many of the city’s churches and in the Easter Week processions.
Indeed, the 18th Century has also been called the century of the Kingdom’s re-population, with Murcia City itself reaching about 70,000 at the end, although many of these would live in the surrounding huerta and perhaps no more than 30% in the main urban area. Cereal production increased and the silk industry rapidly recovered from its earlier problems.
At the same time, Murcian society was, at its roots, extremely conservative. Property and land was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a relatively few families, many of whom were absentee landlords. The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in Murcian terms was limited in extent and largely restricted to outsiders coming in, royal officials in the region and an occasional bishop who wished to promote reform. A major exception was José Moniño, the Count of Floridablanca, a Murcian native who rose to be Prime Minister under both Charles III and IV, who is well remembered by buildings and monuments in Murcia City.
Bad harvests at the end of the 18th Century were succeeded by epidemics of typhoid, yellow fever and cholera. Then came the War of Independence. Spain and France were, at the beginning of the 19th Century allied against Britain (there was the small matter of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 which was a disaster for the Spanish navy). In 1808, King Carlos IV abdicated in favour of his son Fernando (Ferdinand) VII, who, in turn, was also forced to abdicate with Napoleon placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. There were subsequent uprisings against the French and it required Napoleon Bonaparte himself to come and take Madrid with 135,000 troops in November 1808 before fanning out across the Peninsula. Before this war ended in Spain and Ferdinand VII was restored in late 1814, French troops had twice sacked the city of Murcia.
With economic growth after 1830, the population of the wider area covered by the city grew from some 89,000 inhabitants in 1797 to over 107,000 in 1857 and to almost 112,000 by the turn of the century. New crops and technology gradually arrived, as did the railway in 1862, which occasioned a visit from Queen Isabel II. Nevertheless, Murcia, experienced the political instability which afflicted the rest of Spain in the second half of the century.
If the 20th Century had its undoubted traumas, none more than the Civil War of 1936-39, it also saw the development of the modern city of Murcia. Initially, there were the theatres, casinos, cafes/meeting places and new buildings such as the Victoria Hotel, the Palace of Díaz Cassou, or the Casa Cerdá. If Murcia had prospered in the early 18th Century because it had been on the side of the successful Bourbons in the War of the Spanish Succession, the Spanish Civil War saw it as a rear-guard province for the republican cause, supplying the fronts and receiving refugees.
Deindustrialization was a part of the aftermath of the Civil War as World War II took hold elsewhere and markets were closed. If, today, the population of Murcia City has increased to well beyond 400,000 from around a quarter of this total at the beginning of the 20th Century, that does not reveal the countless thousands who emigrated at periods of economic hardship.
However, it would be churlish to end on a downbeat note.
Today, we see a city which contains much of which to be proud and which has certainly been reaping the dividends of economic development and rapid growth over recent years at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Century.
Taken from ‘Exploring Murcia – Murcia City’, by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com