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José Antonio López Medina: "The story of the Aranjuez mutiny was a coup d'état. That is why it is so relevant today"

2023-12-19
Time to read: 6 min
Interview with José Antonio López Medina, writer and historian. His latest book, "La caída de Ícaro" (The Fallo of Ícaro), is a novel in which he recounts in detail what happened during the Aranjuez mutiny in March 1808. The mutiny, later glorified as a popular uprising against tyranny, was in reality a coup d'état directed from the ruling power. A story that takes on an even greater dimension in view of Spain's current complicated situation.

 

Álvaro Peñas: What led you to write a book about the Aranjuez mutiny?

José Antonio López Medina: I am from Aranjuez, and I grew up listening to a myth, a lie: that the people of Aranjuez rose up to demand their freedom and against Godoy, who had sold us out to the French. This has nothing to do with reality. What happened in Aranjuez from 13 to 19 March was a coup d'état. The Fernandinos (supporters of Crown Prince Ferdinand VII) mobilised the people with wine, money and a lot of fear, because we must bear in mind that the people of Aranjuez in the 19th century worked exclusively for the court. When Godoy saw that the French troops were approaching Madrid, he planned to take the kings to Andalusia and, if things got ugly, to take them to America. The Fernandinos used these plans to tell the locals that if the kings left, they would be out of work and starve to death. Logically, this inflamed the spirits of the population.

The coup is about to fail on the 16th because Carlos IV announces that he is not going to leave Aranjuez, but the Fernandinos use a visit by Carlos IV to Godoy, and the fact that the king's valid mistress and children were sent to Andalusia, to tell the people that they have been deceived. It is an absolute manipulation, like what is happening nowadays, they deceive and use fear to manipulate the people. That is why the story of the Aranjuez riot is so topical. A group of people are capable of using fear and manipulation to the point where they are able to use the people to their heart's content, and they manage to stage a coup d'état from power. And having done so, they created a false legend that has been kept alive for 215 years. Godoy had his shadows and also had important achievements, but he becomes the bad guy.

So, it was not a popular mutiny.

It was not a popular mutiny, it was a led mutiny. Although at one point, the Fernandinos are about to lose control of the situation when the crowd, which is drunk and fired up, tries to storm a barracks to get weapons. Charles IV believes that the same thing will happen to him as happened to Louis XIV and that the people will storm his palace, and in panic he hands over the crown to his son.

You mention the drunken and led mob, which is very similar to what happened during the French Revolution.

Yes, it is very similar and it could have ended in a similar way, with a bloodbath. But in Aranjuez it was different because Ferdinand took the crown very quickly and because the army is practically bought off. The Council of Castile bought off the military commanders so that they would not defend Charles IV, and to this we must add that many envied Godoy, who held the position of "Generalissimo" and was the first in Spanish history to be given that rank. The fact that a mere soldier had become generalissimo did not endear him to the officers. 

He was also accused of being the queen's lover.

A letter or document can always be found to support this claim, but at the moment it does not exist, and it is best to test this hypothesis against other similar cases. Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, had a lover, the Swede Axel von Fersen. There is abundant correspondence between them describing in detail their love affair, but there is nothing similar between the queen and Godoy. The only thing there are are fragments of letters circulated by the Fernandinos, which may hint at many things. The one who invented the whole story was Maria Antonia of Naples, niece of Marie Antoinette, who married Ferdinand VII and created a group of supporters around her, the Neapolitans, who dedicated themselves to defaming Godoy and the queen. In fact, when Maria Antonia died of tuberculosis in 1806, Ferdinand claimed that she had been poisoned by Godoy and his mother, and the Neapolitans became the Fernandins.

Was it difficult to find information about what happened in Aranjuez during those turbulent days? 

The truth is that there is a lot of documentation and even descriptions of the events and written conversations. Writing the novel has been like making a puzzle with different elements and it has taken me ten years to solve it. It is giving a lot to talk about because it is an uncomfortable story, it breaks with the story that has always been told and shows that this story was false. I was not the first to say so, writers like Ramon de Mesonero and Benito Pérez Galdós were the first to point out what had really happened and many others mentioned it briefly, but this book is the first to tell the whole story of the mutiny and has caused an enormous commotion. Many have now discovered that the heroic popular uprising did not exist and that an enormous injustice was done to Godoy.

Godoy went into exile, but was later offered the chance to return to Spain.  

Yes, he was rehabilitated during his lifetime. On 30 April 1844, the Treasury Council ordered that all his titles, except that of Prince of Peace, and money be returned to him. And on 31 May 1847, there was a Royal Decree from Isabella II allowing him to return to Spain, as he had no legal charges against him, and insisting that his fortune be returned to him. Godoy did not return because he was very ill and died a few years later, but all this dismantles the legend of the popular mutiny. It was a coup d'état from above that had national and international consequences, because not only did it bring down the most important personage in Spain, Godoy, it also brought down Charles IV and put Fernando VII, a nefarious character, on the throne, which complicated things for Napoleon. In fact, Napoleon met Godoy after the mutiny and, despite the fact that the French were involved in the coup that brought him down, he offered him power again because Charles IV was useless and could not stand Ferdinand VII, but Godoy refused. Despite everything that has been said about him, he was never a friend of the French.

You say that this is a contemporary story. Unfortunately, and despite all the information available, we haven't changed that much since then. 

The manipulation is enormous, but now there is an even bigger problem. During the riot, the Count of Montijo impersonates different characters, the best known being "Tío Pedro", and goes from tavern to tavern to get people fired up. Today the same thing is done on a vastly broader level through fake profiles on social networks, or through the media, and the manipulation works in the same way. The focus is put on one thing in order to achieve another. In the riot, the focus was put on riots to overthrow a king and his valid king. The truth is that in 215 years nothing has changed. Now we see how many people buy the story of the amnesty for the coup plotters as something positive, just as they bought the story of the mutiny as a heroic deed, the people standing up for their honour and against the French, but that was not the truth. That is why it is so relevant today.

 

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