Third Carlist War
Francisco Oller - La Batalla de Trevino
The Battle of Treviño between Carlist forces and the Spanish military.
Date 21 April, 1872 - 20 January, 1876
Location Spain
Result Liberal Victory
Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931) Liberals

Flag Portugal (1830) Portugal

Flag of Cross of Burgundy Carlists
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931) Ferdinand VIII

Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931) Juan Prim
Flag Portugal (1830) Dom Luis I

Flag of Cross of Burgundy Carlos VII

Flag of Cross of Burgundy Alphonso Carlos
Flag of Cross of Burgundy Ramón Cabrera

The Third Carlist War was the final direct military confrontation between the Carlist movement and the government of Spain. Carlist forces planned an uprising against the Spanish government in opposition to the selection of Ferdinand, the former King of Portugal, to take the crown following the abdication of Isabella II during the Glorious Revolution of 1868. The Carlists believed that Isabella was illegitimate, and thus also rejected Ferdinand and advocated their own candidate, Carlos VII, for the throne. In addition, Carlists opposed much of the liberal reforms championed by the governments of Isabella and Ferdinand and desired a return to local rule, which had been abolished, with the exception of within the Basque Country, since 1716. 

On April 21st, 1872, Carlist supporters rose up in open rebellion, proclaiming Carlos VII as the rightful king of Spain. Carlists quickly managed to gain control of large swaths of territory, most in the Basque provinces and Navarre. They also held territory in Catalonia and areas outside of Valencia, La Mancha and Andalusia. The Carlists hoped to expand their territory by recruiting to their cause large populations of Spaniards disillusioned with the Spanish government. 

The Liberal faction that held power in Madrid had the advantage of a stronger army and international support, especially from neighboring Portugal, which sent aid in the form of arms and supplies. Over time, the Spanish military extinguished operational theaters for Carlists to operate in, causing many of them to flee abroad. 


Isabella II was the only daughter of Ferdinand VII of Spain. In order for her to claim the throne, the Spanish government modified the Salic Law introduced by the Bourbon royal family. Ferdinand's brother Carlos rejected the decision of the government and insisted that he was the rightful heir to the throne. Despite his protests, Isabella became the reigning queen of Spain on September 29th, 1833. Carlos' supporters proclaimed him Carlos V and began the Carlist movement. Carlists led small and unplanned uprisings in the First (1833 - 1840) and Second (1846 - 1849) Carlist Wars, both of which failed to overthrown Isabella II. 

However, Isabella quickly became unpopular within the Spanish government and her rule was sustained solely by military pressure. In 1868, a rebellion led by general Juan Prim overthrew Isabella II in the Glorious Revolution. Isabella II and her family fled into exile in France while Prim became regent until a new candidate could take the throne. Several possibilities were floated such as Amadeo the Duke of Aosta, Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Ferdinand, the former King of Portugal, and Alphonso, Isabella's young son. Naturally, the Carlists advocated that Carlos VII, grandson of Carlos V, take the throne. The decision to enthrone Ferdinand outraged the Carlists, who saw it as yet another betrayal of the Spanish government. They began planning for a general uprising to begin on the 21st of April, 1872. 


Carlos Duke of Madrid

Carlos, the Duke of Madrid, claimed to be Carlos VII, the legitimate king of Spain. He led the Carlist effort to overthrow the government of Ferdinand VIII.

The Carlist uprising was successful in gaining control over most of Navarre and the Basque Country, although Carlists at first avoided major cities like Bilbao because they did not have sufficient strength to overwhelm their garrisons. Some smaller towns in northern Catalonia, south-central Spain, and outside of Valencia were also seized. Carlos VII proclaimed the restoration of the Valencian, Catalonian, and Aragonese charters permitting local rule. The Carlists hoped to win the war not by besieging major cities they didn't have the strength for but rather by taking smaller towns and countryside, forcing the Spanish military into a long war of attrition. 

Conversely, the Spanish government hoped to force the Carlists into a decisive battle where they could bring their overwhelming numbers and firepower to bear and destroy much of the Carlist army in a single stroke. The Spanish army launched quick counterattacks into Carlist-held territory not long after the initial uprising, resulting in large casualties but a tremendous setback for Carlist forces, forcing Carlos VII to flee to France to avoid capture. With less Carlist leadership on the ground and the uprising halted, Spanish forces had the liberty to isolate and pacify Carlist bastions, although disorganized chains of command and political deadlock limited the military to a largely defensive role at first. 

Basque Front

After the initial setbacks from the Spanish army, Carlist forces regrouped and by February of 1873 Carlist forces numbered 50,000 men on all fronts, the majority of which were in the Basque Country. The beginning of the Carlist campaign bode well, as on May 5th of that year Carlist forces under General Dorregaray defeated a Spanish army under General Navarro at the Battle of Eraul. By August, Dorregaray captured the city of Estella and Carlos VII returned to helm the provisional government. However, not long after an increase of Spanish troops led to several inconclusive battles such as Mañeru and Montejurra, where neither side was able to advance. 

Emboldened by the capture of Estella and the inability of the Spanish to recapture it, the Carlists moved to siege Bilbao and cripple the ability of Spain to administer the region. The siege began on February 21st, 1874, and last for two additional months. The Carlists cut off all communication with the outside world and began to shell the city's food sources, almost causing the city to surrender. Only after several Spanish offensives under General Serrano was the Carlist stranglehold broken. However, Serrano was unable to recapture Estella like his predecessors. 

Catalonian Front

Conflictos en la I República Española

The maximum extent of control of the Carlists as seen in red and locations experiencing Carlist uprisings.

Carlist efforts in Catalonia largely stalled until the arrival of Carlos VII's brother Alphonso arrived by the start of 1873. Early success was gained at the Battle of Alpens on July 9th, when an entire Spanish column of eight hundred men was either killed or captured. On December 22nd at Bocairente, Spanish forces under General Weyler were successful in holding off Carlist forces, stalling the Carlist advance throughout Catalonia. Even so, the Carlists were able to establish a center of control in the town of Cantavieja, which resisted multiple Spanish sieges until finally falling by late 1874.

While the Carlist enclave was under attack, Alphonso planned a campaign to take the fight to the Spanish government. In May and June of 1874, he was successful in gathering an army of 14,000 men and marched toward the city of Cuenca, which was only 136 kilometers from Madrid. Cuenca fell in two days but the Spanish counterattack shattered the Carlist force, driving them back towards Valencia. Disagreements in the Catalonian chain of command led to Alphonso being dismissed and leaving Spain. Spanish offensives intensified and the Spanish government declared Catalonia to be completely pacified by November 19th, 1875.


By the end of November 1875, the war had decisively turned against the Carlists. Carlist officers and their men resolved to fortify the areas around Estella for a final stand against the Spanish government. Spain, emboldened by their victories in Catalonia and supplied with additional weapons from Portugal, began the offensive in the beginning of January 1876. Carlist forces were unable to resist the steady bombardment of the Spanish army and Estella surrendered on January 20th, ending the war and forcing many Carlist forces to flee the country, including Carlos VII. 

The ramifications of the war were significant for the Carlist and conservative causes within Spain. Carlism had suffered a significant blow and had lost much of the support it had within Spain, although it recovered the longer the more liberal government of Spain persisted. The ascension of Luís II, also the King of Portugal, reinvigorated the appeal of the Carlist movement to conservatives and Spanish nationalists who resented the idea of being ruled by a Portuguese monarch. A significant diaspora of Carlists formed in France, where they also supported the claim of Carlos VII and his relatives to the throne of France against the ruling Orleanist dynasty. Carlism remained a significant political movement in Iberia and France until the end of World War II. 

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