Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Elizabeth Farnese and Alberoni

In 1714 certain events took place in Spain of sufficient interest to be worth the telling. Philip V., a feeble monarch, like all those for the century preceding him, was on the throne. In his youth he had been the Duke of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. of France, and upon the death of that great monarch would be close in the succession to the throne of that kingdom. But, chosen as king of Spain by the will of Charles II., he preferred a sure seat to a doubtful one, and renounced his claim to the French crown, thus bringing to an end the fierce "War of the Succession," which had involved most of the powers of Europe for many years.

Philip, by nature weak and yielding, became in time a confirmed hypochondriac, and on the death of his wife, Maria Louise, in 1714, abandoned himself to grief, refusing to attend to business of any kind, shutting himself up in the strictest seclusion, and leaving the affairs of the kingdom practically in the hands of the Princess Orsini, the governess of his children, and his chief adviser.

Sorrow-stricken as was the bereaved king, affairs were already in train to provide him with a new wife, a plan being laid for that purpose at the very funeral of his queen, as some writers say, between the ambitious Princess Orsini and a cunning Italian named Alberoni, while they, with a show of grave decorum, followed Maria Louise to the grave.

The story of Alberoni is an interesting one. This man, destined to become prime minister of Spain, began life as the son of a gardener in the duchy of Parma. While a youth he showed such powers of intellect that the Jesuits took him into their seminary and gave him an education of a superior character. He assumed holy orders and, by a combination of knowledge and ability with adulation and buffoonery, made his way until he received the appointment of interpreter to the Bishop of St. Domino, who was about to set out on a mission from the Duke of Parma to the Duke of Vend˘me, then commander of the French forces in Italy.

The worthy bishop soon grew thoroughly disgusted with Vend˘me, who, high as he was in station, displayed a shameless grossness of manner which was more than the pious churchman could endure. The conduct of the affair was therefore left to the interpreter, whose delicacy was not disturbed by the duke's behavior, and who managed to ingratiate himself fully in the good graces of the French general, becoming so great a favorite that in the end he left the service of the Duke of Parma for that of Vend˘me.

Subsequently the duke was appointed to a command in Spain, where he employed Alberoni in all his negotiations with the court of Madrid. Here the wily and ambitious Italian won the favor of the Princess Orsini so fully that when, on Vend˘me's death, he returned home, the Duke of Parma sent him as his envoy to Spain.

The princess little dreamed the character of the man whom she had taken into confidential relations, and who was plotting to overthrow her influence at court. Bent on retaining her influence by the choice of a tractable queen, she spoke to Alberoni of the urgent necessity of finding another bride for the disconsolate king. The shrewd diplomat named several eligible princesses, each of whom he dismissed as objectionable for one reason or another. At the end he adroitly introduced the name of Elizabeth Farneses, step-daughter of the Duke of Parma, of whom he spoke carelessly as a good girl, fattened on Parmesan cheese and butter, and so narrowly educated that she had not an idea beyond her embroidery. She might succeed, he hinted, to the throne of Parma, as the duke had no child of his own, in which case there would be a chance for Spain to regain her lost provinces in Italy.

The deluded Princess Orsini was delighted with the suggestion. With such a girl as this for queen she could continue to hold the reins of state. She easily induced Philip to approve the choice; the Duke of Parma was charmed with the offer; and the preliminary steps to the marriage were hurried through with all possible rapidity.

Before the final conclusion of the affair, however, the Princess Orsini discovered in some way that Alberoni had lied, and that the proposed bride was by no means the ignorant and incapable country girl she had been told. Furious at the deception, she at once sent off a courier with orders to stop all further proceedings relating to the marriage. The messenger reached Parma in the morning of the day on which the marriage ceremony was to be performed by proxy. But Alberoni was wide awake to the danger, and managed to have the messenger detained until it was too late. Before be could deliver his despatches Elizabeth Farnese was the legal wife of Philip of Spain.

The new queen had been fully advised of the state of affairs by Alberoni. The Princess Orsini, to whom she owed her elevation, was to be got rid of, at once and permanently. On crossing the frontiers she was met by all her household except the princess, who was with the king, then on his way to meet and espouse his bride. At Alcala the princess left him and hastened to meet the queen, reaching the village of Xadraca in time to receive her as she alighted from her carriage, kiss her hand, and in virtue of her office at court to conduct her to her apartment.

Elizabeth met the princess with a show of graciousness, but on entering her chamber suddenly turned and accused her visitor of insulting her by lack of respect, and by appearing before her in improper attire. The amazed princess, overwhelmed by this accusation, apologized and remonstrated, but the queen refused to listen to her, ordered her from the room, and bade the officer of the guard to arrest and convey her beyond the frontier.

Here was a change in the situation! The officer hesitated to arrest one who for years had been supreme in Spain.

"Were you not instructed to obey me implicitly?" demanded Elizabeth.

"Yes, your majesty."

"Then do as I have ordered. I assume all responsibility."

"Will your majesty give me a written sanction?"

"Yes," said Elizabeth, in a tone very different from that of the bread-and-butter miss whom Alberoni had represented her.

Calling for pen, ink, and paper, she wrote upon her knee an order for the princess's arrest, and bade the hesitating officer to execute it at once.

He dared no longer object. The princess, in court dress, was hurried into a carriage, with a single female attendant and two officers, being allowed neither a change of clothing, protection against the cold, nor money to procure needed conveniences on the road. In this way a woman of over sixty years of age, whose will a few hours before had been absolute in Spain, was forced to travel throughout an inclement winter night, and continue her journey until she was thrust beyond the limits of Spain, within which she was never again permitted to set foot.

Such was the first act of the docile girl whom the ambitious princess had fully expected to use as a tool for her designs. Schooled by her skilled adviser, and perhaps sanctioned by Philip, who may have wished to get rid of his old favorite, Elizabeth at the start showed a grasp of the situation which she was destined to keep until the end. The feeble-minded monarch at once fell under her influence, and soon all the affairs of the kingdom became subject to her control.

Elizabeth was a woman of restless ambition and impetuous temper, and she managed throughout Philip's reign to keep the kingdom in constant hot water. The objects she kept in view were two: first, to secure to Philip the reversion of the French crown in case of the death of the then Duke of Anjou, despite the fact that he had taken frequent oaths of renunciation; second, to secure for her own children sovereign rule in Italy.

We cannot detail the long story of the intrigues by which the ambitious woman sought to bring about these purposes, but in all of them she found an able ally in Alberoni. Elizabeth did not forget that she owed her high position to this man. They were, besides, congenial in disposition, and she persuaded Philip to trust and consult him, and finally to appoint him prime minister. Not satisfied with this reward to her favorite, she, after a few years, induced the Pope to grant him a cardinal's hat and Philip to make him a grandee of Spain. The gardener's son had, by ability and shrewdness, reached the highest summit to which his ambition could aspire.

From the greatest height one may make the most rapid fall. The power of Alberoni was destined quickly to reach its end. Yet it was less his own fault than the ambition of the queen that led to the termination of his career. As a prime minister he proved a marked success, giving Spain an administration far superior to any she had enjoyed for many years. Alberoni was a man of great ability, which he employed in zealous efforts to improve the internal condition of the country, having the wisdom to avail himself of the talents and knowledge of other able men in handling those departments of government with which he was unfamiliar. He seemed inclined to keep Spain at peace, at least until she had regained some of her old power and energy; but the demands of the queen overcame his reluctance, and in the end he entered upon the accomplishment of her purposes with a daring and recklessness in full accordance with the demands of her restless spirit of intrigue.

Louis XIV. died in 1715. Louis XV., his heir, was a sickly child, not yet five years old. Philip would have been regent during his youth, and his heir in case of his death, had he not renounced all claim to the French throne. He was too weak and irresolute in himself to take any steps to gain this position, but his wife spurred him on to ambitious designs, and Alberoni entered eagerly into her projects, beginning a series of intrigues in France with all who were opposed to the Duke of Orleans, the existing regent.

These intrigues led to war. The duke concluded an alliance with England and Germany, the former enemies of France. Philip, exasperated at seeing himself thus thwarted, declared war against the German emperor, despite all that Alberoni could do to prevent, and sent an expedition against Sardinia, which captured that island. Sicily was also invaded. Alberoni now entered into intrigues for the restoration of the banished Stuarts to the English throne, and took part in a conspiracy in France to seize the Duke of Orleans and appoint Philip to the regency.

Both these plots failed, the war became general, Philip found his armies beaten, and Alberoni was forced to treat for peace. The Spanish minister had made bitter enemies of George I. of England and the Duke of Orleans, who, claiming that he was responsible for disturbing the peace of Europe, demanded his dismissal as a preliminary to peace. His failure had lost him influence with the king, but the queen, the real power behind the throne, supported him, and it was only by promises of the enemies of Alberoni to aid her views for the establishment of her children that she was induced to yield consent to his overthrow.

On the 4th of December, 1719, Alberoni spent the evening transacting affairs of state with the king and queen. Up to that time he remained in full favor and authority, however he may have suspected the intrigues for his overthrow. Their majesties that night left Madrid for their country palace at Pardo, and from there was sent a decree by the hands of a secretary of state, to the all-powerful minister, depriving him of all his offices, and bidding him to quit Madrid within eight days and Spain within three weeks.

Alberoni had long been hated by the people of Spain, and detested by the grandees, who could not be reconciled to the supremacy of a foreigner and his appointment to equality with them in rank. But this sudden dismissal seemed to change their sentiments, and rouse them to realization of the fact that Spain was losing its ablest man. Nobles and clergy flocked to his house in such numbers that the king became alarmed at this sudden popularity, and ordered him to shorten the time of his departure.

Alberoni sought refuge in Rome, but here the enmity of France and England pursued him, and Philip accused him of misdemeanors in office, for which he demanded a trial by the Pope and cardinals. Before these judges the disgraced minister defended himself so ably that the court brought the investigation to a sudden end by ordering him to retire to a monastery for three years.

This period the favor of the Pope reduced to one year, and his chief enemy, the regent of France, soon after dying, he was permitted to leave the monastery and pass the remainder of his life free from persecution. His career was a singular one, considering the lowness of his origin, and showed what ability and shrewdness may accomplish even against the greatest obstacles of fortune.