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Herencia: Church and State in 18th Century Spain

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The following is a guest post by Eliza Friend, who served as a spring 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.

Royal Order of September 18, 1776 issued by King Carlos III punishing religious persons who defame the Spanish Crown.
Royal Order of September 18, 1776 issued by King Carlos III punishing religious persons who defame the Spanish Crown.

As I have completed the Herencia Crowdsourcing Campaign Internship and reviewed documents that span a variety of subjects and languages, a few unique documents have stood out to me as particularly interesting or especially relevant to understanding Spanish society during the 18th century. One such document is a Royal Order issued by King Carlos III on September 18, 1776, mandating that ecclesiastical figures and clergymen who speak out against the Spanish crown be punished. I find this document to be particularly interesting because of what the order reveals about the tenuous relationship between church and state and the fragility of a divine right to rule. The document warns:

El amor, y el respeto à los Soberanos, à la Familia Real y al Gobierno es una obligacion…sus sermones, egercicios espirituales, y actos devotos, deben infundir à el Pueblo estos principios…y [no contribuir] a infundir odiosidad contra ellas… (Royal Order, pp. 2-3)

love and respect for the sovereigns, for the royal family, and the government is an obligation…sermons, spiritual activities, and acts of devotion should instill these principles in the people…and not instill hatred against them…

The Divine Right of Kings is a political concept that was used to justify monarchical absolutism, or the monarch retaining complete power without any input from another governmental, economic, or electoral body (Figgis, p. 5). The doctrine originated in Europe and is predicated on the notion that the reigning monarch is appointed by God and therefore cannot be challenged by lesser men; that is to say, to go against the king would be to defy the will of God. The Divine Right of Kings was easily employed to justify absolute monarchical power in Protestant states where the monarch could assert himself as the leading political and religious figure in the country (Padoa-Schioppa, pp. 234-235); one such case famously resulted in the separation of England from the Catholic church and the creation of the Church of England. However, in the devoutly Catholic nation of Spain, the church and the people’s loyalty to the Pope somewhat weakened the supremacy of royal power and increased the necessity of asserting the Divine Right of Kings, given that, according to the teachings of Catholicism, the highest power on Earth and the man appointed by God is the Pope, not the monarch (Figgis, p. 53). It seems to me that this order is a glimpse into what must have been an ongoing struggle for King Carlos III to protect the legitimacy of his claim to the throne by silencing the only competing major power in Spain: the church. He was likely aware that clergymen were capable of questioning his divine right to power and possibly turning his subjects against him, thus issuing this order was a way to ensure that dissent could not spread through worship and his monarchical power remained absolute.

Additionally, and not necessarily tied to the relationship between the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church, the year that the order was issued (1776) may provide insight as to why King Carlos III was especially concerned for and sought to protect his crown through this manner. On July 4, 1776, Britain’s 13 American colonies declared themselves independent and formed the United States of America. This was a signal to the monarchies of Europe that their power was not uncontestable, and their subjects were capable of rising up against them, which may have prompted King Carlos III to issue this order to ensure that the Spanish people could not be encouraged to revolt through the church.

Sources consulted:

Royal Order issued by King Carlos III punishing religious persons who defame the Spanish Crown. [Spain: publisher not identified, 1776].

Figgis, John Neville. The theory of the divine right of kings. No. 9. University Press, 1922.

Padoa-Schioppa, Antonio, and Caterina Fitzgerald, eds. “Churches and States in the Age of Absolutism.” In A History of Law in Europe: From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, 233–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.


  1. Very important document, thanks for sharing.

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