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Jesús María Usunáriz, Senior Associate Professor of Modern History. University of Navarra

The Duchy of Alba and the nobility

Sun, 23 Nov 2014 13:22:00 +0000 Published in

The lordship, and later county, of Alba de Tormes became a duchy by grace granted by King Henry IV of Castile to García Álvarez de Toledo in 1472. Since then, its holders occupied high positions in the administration of the Hispanic Monarchy. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel (1582), the 3rd Duke of Alba portrayed by Titian, would go down in history as one of the most important military and political figures of his time. As the "grand duke", the members of the House of Alba were always linked to the Monarchy in different positions and responsibilities.

This branch of the Álvarez de Toledo family, which was linked to the most important families of the Spanish aristocracy, accumulated numerous titles (duchies, marquisates, counties...) that would grant it an enviable and envied social, economic and political preeminence over many decades. In fact, María Teresa de Silva Álvarez de Toledo (the second woman to hold the title of the House of Alba as 13th Duchess, and whose image was masterfully captured by Goya), would come to concentrate in her person more than fifty noble titles. Upon the death of María Teresa (1802), without descendants, the ownership of the duchy passed (to the present day) to the Fitz-James Stuart branch -related to James II, King of England-, Duke and Duchess of Berwick, in the person of Carlos Miguel Fitz-James Stuart y Silva.

The House of Alba is an example of what aristocratic nobility came to represent in Spain for centuries. Being a nobleman was the fundamental basis for social ascent and social advancement. From the simplest and simplest nobility, thanks to the merits of the members of the family, the favors of a monarch always in need of men or money could be obtained. The nobility, or at least part of it, fed, in titles, lands and privileges, thanks to its military services in the fights against the Muslims, grew and became strong to the point of wanting to hold and limit the action of the monarchs. However, after decades of civil wars, the nobles bent their necks before an increasingly powerful, bureaucratic and centralized royal power, from which emanated the grants, privileges, prestige, power and money to which those nobles aspired.

The aristocracy, reconverted, from the end of the 15th century, into courtiers, monopolized positions in the Councils of the Monarchy from where they influenced the decisions of the king in turn; they were generals, brilliant or unsuccessful, in countless battles; they served as viceroys and governors in the vast extensions of the Spanish Monarchy, in Europe and in America; they acted as ambassadors, secretaries of state or ministers; members of their families would also reach high positions in the hierarchy of the Church. In many towns, the appointment of mayors and the exercise of justice depended on them. They were owners of large properties, rustic or real estate in a good part of the Peninsula, from which they received substantial incomes.

The 19th century would mark the beginning of a change that, with the passing of the decades, would prove to be radical. The new sign of the times, the access to power of liberal rulers, meant that many of those old aristocratic houses, burdened by debts, subjected to new hereditary rules, or subject to moderately restrictive legislations, saw the disappearance of portions of their immense fortunes and the old loopholes of their power.

Others, with better luck or vision, were able to maintain their economic and social status, adapted to the new times, and watched as new social groups, a liberal bourgeoisie, increasingly influential, associated with industry, commerce and also, of course, land, began to control the strings of state administration and politics. Certainly, many of those noble families with medieval roots, such as the Alba family, continued to conserve an immense economic heritage, social prestige and political influence. But they were no longer, nor would they ever be again, what they once were. The death of a singular woman like Doña Cayetana Fitz-James, 18th holder of the duchy since 1955, is an example of a nobility that adapts to the times, without losing the bequest of its ancestors; it marks the end and the beginning of a new era for the house, in which it has undoubtedly left its mark.