The secret opinion of Elizabeth II on the Spanish Empire that would scandalize the ‘Royal Navy’ of the 18th century
The eighties were marked with a red marker on the Moncloa calendar. Spain was inaugurating democracy – a few years had passed since the death of the dictator – and it was vitally important that our neighbors support us on the new European path. Under that premise he traveled John Charles I to the United Kingdom in 1986: to finalize the details of a coup that would shake society and show locals and foreigners that the great monarchies were on the side of the Bourbons. It worked and, just two years later, Isabel II – who died last Thursday at the age of 96 – visited Spain to give the final accolade to her fourth cousin.
His Graceful Majesty set foot on the peninsula on October 17, 1988 with Philip of Edinburgh. Over five days he dispatched through Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. The last stage of the trip was dedicated to resting in Mallorca; no cameras, yes. They were five hectic days in which Isabel II was, above all, close to Don Juan Carlos and Doña Sofía. She had time to snack at local bakeries or to enjoy flamenco dances with them; something that has already been repeated ad nauseam these days. However, what has been left out is that she also addressed a speech to the Congress of Deputies in which he made reference to the greatness of the Spanish Empire and its relationship –sometimes cloudy– with the United Kingdom.
The Queen was about 62 years old very well when she appeared before the Congress of Deputies. Her hair, still brown, was pulled back; her smile was perennial. The party started at around twenty minutes to twelve in the afternoon by the president of the chamber, Felix Pons Irazazabal. Or, at least, that was registered in the Journal of Sessions. For two nations with centuries of clashes behind them, those words were of twinning and even of a certain affection: «Spain and the United Kingdom are based on solid cultures, both egregiously linked to the leafy tree of European culture. Shakespeare and Cervantes, Milton and Quevedo, Locke and Luis Vives […] they intermingle in a process of intellectual and aesthetic development of which they are inseparable parts».
After the many applause of rigor, Elizabeth II returned the compliment to the president with the first paragraph of her speech: «Spain, like Great Britain, is one of the pillars on which Western civilization rests. Since the times of Seneca, Martial and Quintilian, Spain has been at the forefront of European achievement. The monarch did not beat around the bush. To begin with, he dared to dust off old taboos in his country such as colonization – «Spain was the home of the discoverers of the New World», he argued – and praised the work of classical painters such as El Greco, Francisco de Goya or Pablo Picasso. She started well, although she was just warming up.
And from here the weighty arguments began. Knowing that it was impossible to avoid the six centuries that the two powers had been at war, the Queen admitted that our country had been one of those rivals to take into account: “Spain has been a formidable adversary and a faithful and courageous ally. My country knows both facets very well!” The dozens of battles in which the ‘Royal Navy’ languished, trembling, before the Spanish Navy corroborate her words. La Rochelle in 1372; the Counterarmada disaster in 1589; the ridicule of the British corsairs in the Azores Islands back in 1591; the defense of Cartagena de Indias by Blas de Lezo and the Eslava viceroy in 1738; the war in Pensacola during 1781; Nelson’s defeat in Cádiz… There are no fingers on the hand to count the examples.
The new World
But it was one thing to be friendly, and quite another to belittle one’s own country. So the Queen was quick to insist that “both of our nations can remember her story with pride.” For her, British and Spanish were on a par. “We built the two greatest empires the world has ever known and bequeathed them our jurisprudence, our beliefs and our languages,” she added. She forgot the monarch to point out that she had little to do with the colonization of the Spanish Empire with its British equivalent. Stanly G. Payne confirmed it to ABC in 2017: «The English attacked the villages to reduce the natives, instead of fighting them on the battlefield. That was worse than what the Spanish did.”
Although, once again, it was not a day to divide, but to find common points. For this reason, Isabel stressed that England and Spain should feel proud of their contribution to the world. “We can look back with satisfaction on the multitude of independent nations that speak our two languages, that share our values and that now, by themselves, make an outstanding contribution to world culture and international relations.” She also admitted that the paths had not been the same, but that “today, as European parliamentary democracies, Spain and Great Britain work together again as partners and allies.”
And from one thing to another. With the fifth centenary of the discovery of America just around the corner –there were barely four years left until 1992–, Isabel II sang the benefits of a Spanish Empire that dedicated all its state and business machinery to the exploration of the new world. “This was the date set for the implementation of the Single European Market, and it is the year in which Spain, both in Barcelona and Seville, will be the hostess for the entire world,” he argued. In his words, few countries could better appreciate “the triumphs and defeats that the Spanish nation has endured in the last century” than the United Kingdom.
The next block of the speech was to bless the then brand-new democracy that the Monarchy had made an effort to bring to Spain. It was normal. Since the advent of the Second Republic on April 14, 1931, the British Royal Family, related to Alfonso XIII, he longed for His Majesty’s return to the wheel. Relations had not been good either. Francisco Franco; in the first place, because he had kicked forward with regard to the Juanista Restoration, but also for having established a dictatorship and demanding the return of the Rock of Gibraltar.
It was a day to praise democracy and applaud the fall of the dictatorship, wow. “In this first visit of a British monarch to his country, it seems correct and opportune to begin by paying a warm tribute to the Spanish people for the democracy that they have known how to carve out over the last decade,” he explained. The Queen herself also stated that the arrival of parliamentarism should be considered a key milestone. “The democratic Parliament before me, and the manner in which it has been achieved, will be regarded as one of the brightest pages in the long and proud history of this Nation,” she concluded.
“The democratic Parliament before me, and the manner in which it has been achieved, will be regarded as one of the brightest pages in the long and proud history of this Nation.”
Elizabeth II also insisted that, after years of disagreements, both nations were finally walking towards a common goal through the European Community and NATO. One that sought the prosperity and well-being of the two peoples within the framework of a liberal democracy. “These two great communities of nations allow us to play a role on the world stage, both in promoting social and economic well-being in the wider world and, through NATO, in preserving world peace,” he said.
The last part of the speech hid some sarcasm. In 1986, two years before the monarch’s visit to Spain, Princes Carlos and Diana spent several days on vacation in Mallorca with their children. It must not have seemed bad to them in the enclave, since they returned up to three times. And that, despite the legions of photographers chasing them. In her speech, Elizabeth II alluded to this time off: «Every year, between seven and eight million British tourists visit Spain. They will have realized that, among them, is my own family. It is my sincere hope that these increasingly intense exchanges will forge greater understanding between our respective peoples.”