A Lust for Naples
The War of the Austrian Succession began in late 1740 with the young Prussian King Frederick II launching an unprovoked invasion of Austrian-ruled Silesia. Prussia had no claim on Silesia, but that didn’t stop the Soldier King from trying to profit from the tense international situation. A woman had inherited the realms of Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, and many potential predators saw that as an opportunity to tear away parts of Maria Theresa’s inheritance.
The war would continue in some form until 1748, driven in large part by the dispute over Silesia. Maria Theresa had the stronger - in fact, only - legal claim, but Frederick had possession. The Austrian Empress refused to yield up Silesia easily, continuing her attempts to retrieve it from the Prussians.
Less discussed by historians in the more than two and a half centuries that have passed since is Maria Theresa’s nearly as powerful determination to retrieve another valuable territory, Naples (the city as well as most of southern Italy), from the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon. Unlike Frederick, her rival in this case, Philip V of Spain, also believed that he had a legitimate claim to the territory.
Sardinia, Sicily and Naples had all been part of the Crown of Aragon when it merged with Castille to form united Spain in 1504. The Aragonese had taken Sicily in 1282 when the anti-French uprising known as the “Sicilian Vespers” led to the nobility offering the crown to Pedro III of Aragon. That resulted in twenty year of war, during which Pope Boniface VIII established the Kingdom of Sardinia as compensation for Aragon’s King Jaime II the Just abandoning his claims to Sicily. The Aragonese ended up adding both islands to the Crown of Aragon, Sicily in 1409 and Sardinia in 1420.
Naples in 1748, by Joseph Vernet.
Naples fell to Aragon’s King Alfonso V in 1442, but after his death was ruled by his bastard son Ferdinand as a separate kingdom dependent on Aragon. Aragon and France fought for a decade, and in 1504 Naples formally became part of the Crown of Aragon rather than a separate kingdom.
Though listed as “kingdoms” among the many titles of Spain’s rulers, for the next two centuries the three territories were treated as Spanish provinces. Naples in particular prospered under Spanish rule; the city of Naples tripled in size to become the largest in Italy as well as the largest in the Spanish Monarchy. Naples (the city), thanks to its low cost of living, became a cultural center and home to figures including Caravaggio and Giordano Bruno. Naples (the kingdom) also became an important source of grain for metropolitan Spain, exporting large quantities every year and providing enough tax revenue to become the Monarchy’s “richest and most dependable Peru.”
Charles II, the last Habsburg king of Spain, died in 1700, setting off the War of the Spanish Succession. Austrian troops took Naples in 1707, and the treaties ending the war in 1714 confirmed Austrian possession of both Naples and Sardinia, while the House of Savoy received Sicily.
Ruled by a Habsburg viceroy, Naples was treated as an imperial backwater. Emperor Charles VI could not raise the tax revenue from the impoverished countryside to adequately defend the kingdom, and the Habsburg crown lacked the funds to build the ports and merchant ships and the fleets to protect them that the emperor’s advisors claimed could make Naples an economic powerhouse for the mostly land-locked Empire. An effort to build and man warships and set up trading concerns finally began in the 1730’s, but did not outlive Austrian rule.
Philip V, grandson of French King Louis XIV, had been named King of Spain but much of his patrimony had been stripped away against his will to buy the peace his grandfather’s kingdom desperately needed. Philip, not willing to accept this diminishment of his kingdom, almost immediately set about reversing the losses.
The British fleet at Naples before the Battle of Cape Passaro, 1718.
Spanish troops invaded Sardinia in 1717, quickly overrunning the island, and moved on to Sicily a year later. Though Philip had been removed as the island’s sovereign, he remained the largest landowner in Sicily (holding about 10 percent of the island’s arable land) and used that position to foment opposition to the new Savoyard rulers. Those invasions sparked the War of the Quadruple Alliance, in which Spain faced Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands; in the war’s key engagement, the naval battle off Cape Passaro, the British destroyed the just-rebuilt Spanish fleet and forced Philip to give up his conquests. This time Piedmont took Sardinia and Austria received Sicily.
In 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Turkish troops had seized the cities of Oran and Mers-el-Kébir in what today is Algeria. The two cities had been a Spanish possession since 1509, and Philip considered their loss yet another affront. After the Spanish fleet extorted cash from the Republic of Genoa - threatening to bombard the city if it did not yield up two million silver piastres - Philip fitted out an expedition in 1732 with 28,000 men and over 250 ships to take the cities back. It was a popular move in Spain, a renewal of the ancient Reconquista and one not requiring a tax increase since it was funded by Genoese silver.
The successful capture of Oran and Mers-el-Kébir raised Philip’s standing both internationally and in the nascent stirrings of public opinion. But while the cities had some economic value, the real prize remained Naples. The War of the Polish Succession broke out a year after Philip’s expedition to North Africa, giving him the opportunity. Spain joined the war on the side of France against Austria, and a Spanish army marched south through Papal territory into Naples, where the population welcomed them while the small Austrian garrison shut itself up in various fortresses. Otto von Traun held out for seven months in Capua, but could not prevent the Spaniards from declaring their rule over Naples restored.
Don Carlos (white uniform) marches on Naples (background), 1734.
Five days after the Spanish made their formal entry into the city of Naples, Philip V formally ceded the kingdom as well as the neighboring island of Sicily to his younger son, the 18-year-old Don Carlos, later Charles III of Spain. It was a surprising move at the time, usually attributed to the machinations of the boy’s mother, Elisabeth Farnese, the king’s second wife. But as Philip explained to Louis XV of France, the other powers of Europe would never have agreed to allowing Spain to expand her power back into Italy in such a fashion. A number of leading Spanish nobles expressed their opposition all the same, accusing the king of alienating part of his patrimony and that of his eldest son without any consultation with the Cortes or any of the regional parliaments.
The move did allow Philip V to retain Naples and Sicily in the 1738 Treaty of Vienna that ended the War of the Polish Succession, giving up in exchange Don Carlos’ much smaller former realm of Parma to the Austrians and acceding (along with Don Carlos) to the Pragmatic Sanction allowing Maria Theresa to rule Austria - a key demand of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and an agreement that Philip and his son quickly forgot when the chance to seize more Italian territory presented itself.
The loss of Naples and, to a lesser extent, Sicily, still annoyed Maria Theresa when she succeeded Charles VI in October 1740, just two years after the provinces had been signed away in exchange for a hollow promise. By the spring of 1741, a Spanish army commanded by Jose Carillo the Duke of Montemar, conqueror of Habsburg Naples and Sicily, had deployed to northern Italy to seize Austrian-ruled Lombardy. Austria had only held Naples for 20 years, compared to two centuries of Spanish rule, but Maria Theresa made her position clear to her new commander in Italy, the redoubtable Traun. Not only did she intend to hold her territories there, she wished Naples to return to the Habsburg fold.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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