Viva El Rey
by Randy Ford
Yes, it was good news. And it spread fast and pleased the crowds. Except they were afraid to hope for too much. “Long live the king!” sounded so sweet. Except he disappointed them before. It was a brief moment, so full of memories. Moreover a lot of people didn’t believe it was true, since information they received was often faulty. Church bells pealed. Rockets went off. Then there had to be something to it.
Could it be true? Were the French defeated? Was Bonaparte living in exile, perhaps on a pension? What they heard wasn’t necessary accurate. If you needed to be sure you had to see the king with your own eyes. And if you didn’t see him, what then?
“Viva El Rey!” people cheered. Euphoria mixed with pain over having lost loved ones. It was a short but fierce struggle. Memories of it were still raw. Cannons were necessary. Now cannons were fired at random and in the dark. Well, at least the king was alive and well. The king still had his dying to do. “Long live the king!” Open doors and let air in because now they had something they all agreed upon. Hopefully, there will be no more intrigue. El Rey had survived seven long years of exile.
He thought it hadn’t been so bad. He accepted Napoleon’s hospitality and enjoyed many perks once he accepted the reality of his situation. However, he would have preferred to spend the time in Madrid, or that was what he always claimed. No question, he would’ve preferred to spend the time in Spain.
He always remembered how much he enjoyed the carriage ride over the mountains and how he fell for Napoleon’s ruse when he accepted accommodations at the Hotel Dubrocq. And how the trap was set for him. He was always vain, so it was easy to entrap him. So many ways to entrap him … flatter him … flattery helped. Then whether it was entrapment or not, it was clear that His Royal Highness wasn’t totally duped. Still he had no alternative, and perhaps it stemmed from a desire to patch things up with the Emperor. Who knew? But there was no doubt that Napoleon had one thing in mind and that was to take the Spanish throne away from an ally.
But his intentions at first weren’t clear. So conceivably there were alternatives, but the reception Ferdinand received confused the king. Bonaparte was an excellent host. He spared no expense, catered to the king’s every whim and served great food, French food, better than the king ever had before. Was it the food that did the trick? Hardly. Bonaparte knew a lot about the king. He knew his weaknesses, not that he liked playing parlor games. Then after such a reception Ferdnand hadn’t expected the Emperor’s trickery. He couldn’t believe it. It puzzled him. Of course no one knew then how ambitious Bonaparte was. Imagine removing the Boubons (a brutish, bad lot) from Europe and sending the king of Spain to Mexico; imagine Bonaparte ruling the world, and imagine Ferdinand living in exile. Imagine. Imagine both of them living in exile. Ferdinand was still king; yes, a Boubon king. And he wasn’t ready to give up his throne, yet he did. He wouldn’t have gone had he known.
Going when Bonaparte was so preoccupied, Ferdinand still got a special reception. They were civil, as they should’ve been. Bonaparte enjoyed mocking him, while Ferdinand took it for flattery. It was about time that the old reigning families of Europe gave way to a hero to whom the continent owed everything. And the only way out for the king was to accept the Frenchman’s hospitality. This was after the king crossed the border. What a friend he had in Bonaparte. And this was in a world where power was tied to perception, and when the visitor couldn’t see what he was in for. It led to him abdicating, and it was over before he realized it. Afterward, he returned to the Hotel Dubrocq, sunk in an armchair and moped all day.
King had to mope before he could have fun. He was sorry, sorry for himself and for his country, but he was determined to have fun. Thankfully he wasn’t shot and could spend the rest of his life living in France as a “free” man. Yes, he was finally free. Free and annoyed at his benefactor. Yes, he had had his fun, and there was no reason why he couldn’t have more of it. So shouldn’t he have been grateful? Yes, grateful for the generosity shown him and the kind of liberty that sometimes made him smile up until his death. And the whole thing … the adoration of his people, then disgrace when he abdicated. Except he felt relieved. It was madness, yet he knew that he could’ve happily spent the rest of his life in France and done without his throne.
He had the deepest respect and almost fondness for his benefactor, feelings he stupidly (some would say disgracefully) expressed. Now he could go to Talleyrand’s Chateou de Valencay where Madam de Talleyrand entertained with four or five other ladies. Never before was he allowed to walk in gardens without written permission from his father, or ride or hunt freely. Everything was different for him, so why would he want to go back to Spain? The throne never mattered to him, and mattered even less after he got his freedom. He could thank the emperor for it, all of it, and much to his people’s horror, he wrote his benefactor thanking him. But by then Bonaparte had moved on.
Long distance communication wasn’t easy in those days, if it existed at all. And it was rarely private, so everyone knew about the handsome pension the monarch received from the emperor. Though he didn’t always receive it on time it made people nervous. It was called bribery. If bribery wasn’t the right word for it, it was close enough. Especially since the king gave up the crown. He was a Boubon, and the Boubons were in charge for a very long time. Europeans understood Boubons, but they couldn’t understand why Ferdinand gave up without a fight. It raised questions, and the questions never went away. Like could the king ever be trusted again? Could he be forgiven? Some people seesawed back and forth, and were as unpredictable as the weather. Later all they could do was hope for the best. What more could they wish for from a person whose character was at best weak?
In any case, people wanted him back. Without restraint, there was delirium in Madrid when the king was restored … salvoes and fireworks, only his majesty didn’t like fireworks. It reminded him of a battlefield.
To just catch a glimpse of him … El Rey! God bless him! How many kings get a second chance? It was then, as now, almost unheard of. It required luck to survive long enough. Who else had enough? One caught a glimpse of him, and may have wondered. Yes, yes, it was good news … yes, yes, yes, too good to be true. He rode his great white horse, a rather dumpy, crafty looking character on a great stallion. He rode with one hand, and with his other hand raised high above his head. The crowd loved it. He was the old king. He was his old self. First came the handsome, well-polished carabiniers, then the cuirassiers, the hussars and the turbaned Turkish mamelouksm, and then him up the Gran Via. “Viva El Rey!” It was a sight to see.
Sticklers for etiquette, the Spaniards out did themselves that day. Something that didn’t go unnoticed. Here was the future, many of them said. Such an unforgettable sight. For many it was the happiest day of their lives. For many it was like a wedding; it was that festive; he was an ineptly timid Royal prick, yet they welcomed him. They yelled, “Viva El Rey!” Because they waited seven long years for him. So many years for him. It didn’t matter that his attitude stunk. It didn’t matter that he had an ugly face. Who noticed his rounded knees, his tubby figure, or heard his soft, delicate voice? So he was quite unintelligible. So he was dishonest, and a giggle often betrayed him.
Yes, indeed, it was nothing short of a miracle. In every sense of the word, a miracle! Curiously enough, with more thought they wouldn’t have thrown their capes in the air, or mantillas and flowers under his horse. Or fought for a look. Arrogant he seemed, and in every way arrogant he was. From such a superior individual it wasn’t unexpected, and if he hadn’t been arrogant he would’ve disappointed them. Having the advantage of riding a great horse, he looked down on his subjects and enjoyed their veneration. So he took full advantage of his royal status. For after all, he was their king, and he took full advantage of the power it granted him, power he neither earned nor deserved.
Neither was there much required of him. He didn’t have a brain. He didn’t even have to speak. There was no education called for or views expected. He didn’t read much. He didn’t need to do anything because he was already in the history books. There was no reason to expect brilliance, and no one expected him to be vital. He could be an old filthy man; it didn’t matter to the crowd.
The king had this moment. This moment was his destiny, his moment in the sun. He would remember it, how the people cheered for him. He looked regal, just as the crowd expected him to look. And just as he would look on many occasions, riding on his great horse or in his grand carriage. His people needed him, and amazingly enough they didn’t feel jilted after seven years. You can appreciate how they felt, after living under the thumb of a Frenchman for seven years. They had known tyranny. Ruthlessness was nothing new to them. They never thought that they were in for more of the same. For the moment, they weren’t thinking about the future.
However, they hadn’t expected cold, cruel scorn, and they didn’t consider Ferdinand a despot. ”Oh, my lord, grant them happiness for one day.” Oh, lord, he couldn’t be a tyrant. Then you must put your fears behind you. He couldn’t be worse than the Frenchman. If so, it was still better than living under the thumb of one. But don’t contradict yourself. You hate tyranny. Against all terrors of the past (for the majority, living memories) they weighed a new sense of hope. Moreover what did they have to lose? And he spoke Spanish. Make the king communicate and answer in Spanish. French would never due.
But in spite of the adoration and the pomp and circumstances, his Majesty couldn’t wait to get back to his billiards, draughts, and card games. Then he’d feel at home. And to him if he hurried he’d make mistakes. If urgent, it could wait. But back alone in his room, a mirror filled salon, reflecting velvets, brocades, satins, and dreams, doing absolutely nothing, he missed the wild, wild nights of exile. However what did he achieve in France? He could always say that he wasn’t allowed to achieve anything. His subjects watched and waited and described themselves in terms of their expectations.
`Would he take another wife, always something he had to lower himself to do? His union with Maria Antoineta, though prudent hadn’t been satisfying. Instead of a son, she gave him a miscarriage. (Little blood flowed. “The foetus was smaller than a grain of aniseed and the umbilical cord, as thin as a cobweb.”) She could do better than that, he thought. Was it the main thing? Could it have been him? Made her queen, and what did he get for it? Sex? Pleasure? He didn’t have to marry her for that. Oh, what a wretched deal! What was he dealing with here? Did he ever know the truth? That she considered him beastly and ugly? Could it be condensed down to that? Why she withheld herself, and why he delayed abolishing the People’s Cortes and Salic law so that his daughter Isabel could reign after him? But perhaps there were other reasons for his reluctance. Maybe he had a brain after all.
Once again, bleared-eyed, with his dressing gown hiked up, he got up from his mother’s privy, a canopied mahogany throne and straightened himself up on a red, velvet footstool, for after all he inherited his mother’s character. Was he really a despot? He could be generous. Of course, he was rich, and he hated despots. Remember kings weren’t judged by common standards. This king was a case in point. A cloud (he lived under many) that caused him great pain came from his plotting to kill his father. It was plain that he struggled with criminality as he plotted to overthrow his parents. On several occasions he went on to betray co-conspirators. He also connived with the troops and masterminded a revolt. In other words he triumphed through deceit. It wasn’t his finest hour. But when his mother accused him of being insensitive, didn’t she see herself in him?
Brooding, this king entered the Royal Pantheon alone. He walked down dark, narrow steps into the royal tombs to speak to the bones of kings and queens, bones buried in niches and broken in pieces and packed closely in order to fit. He had privileged access. He wanted it that way. In the middle of the night, he crept down there to listen and entered darkness to find light, or inspiration. This led to more intrigue. It never occurred to him, even later as the Supreme Inquisitor, that he was committing heresy, and that one day because of it he would be denied purgation.
And “for the good of the kingdom, he restored the tribunal and commissions, formed for the purpose of maintaining the nation and the faith according to ancient fashion and used his royal omnipotence to sentence his enemies to severe torture and death. Execution by manifesto, a Holy enterprise; or in grand style, and for lessor offences, petty indeed, exile to African presidios and convents.” Exile! Ah, the memories of exile!