King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia, the day of the Papal Audience, with their retinue.
Alberto Rubio. Madrid.
Before Philip VI’s visit to His Holiness Pope Francis there existed only two precedents of the Kings of Spain being received at an Audience: Juan Carlos I in 1977 (Paul VI) and Alfonso XIII in 1923 (Pius XI). Isabel II was received after having abdicated, already exiled in Paris. In neither of these cases was it a question of obeying the “tradition”, so much discussed lately, stating that Spanish Monarchs, due to their Catholicism, make their first international trip to the Vatican when they accede to the throne. But that is another story.
What was noteworthy about the Audience granted by Pius XI to Alfonso XIII, on 20 November 1923, was that it was a notable diplomatic issue. No Spanish Monarch had travelled to Rome in the previous four hundred years and General Primo de Rivera had just established a dictatorship in Spain which the Catholic hierarchy had received with “warm joy”, as described by Francisco Martí Gilabert in his essay “The Church and the Primo de Rivera Dictatorship”. It was an opportune moment.
With the acquiescence of the Government the Spanish Monarchs boarded the battleship Jaime I in Valencia. Four days later they arrived in Rome on a special train and were received by the Italian King, Victor Emmanuelle III. One of the objectives was precisely to collaborate on the solution of the “Roman question”, which the Vatican faced with the young kingdom of Italy due to the fact that, after the reunification of the nation, Rome had been absorbed into the new State, so that the Pontifical States were brought under its jurisdiction.
On that subject, the Italian press highlighted that the visit of the Spanish King to his Italian counterpart “had closed the breach in the Porta Pia”, although L’Osservatore Romano quickly noted that no formula had been found to guarantee the Pope’s freedom. This would eventually happen in 1929, with the signing of the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Mussolini’s Government.
Returning to Alfonso XIII’s visit, the King had expressed, since his proclamation, his desire to visit the Pope. He had already wanted to travel when Benedict XV was Pope, but the World War and the “Roman question” impeded him.
The King had two important reasons to visit the Holy See. First, to honour his title as “His Catholic Majesty” which all Spanish Monarchs hold. Second, to request certain privileges that he considered fair for Spain, among them to increase the number of Spanish cardinals, which he felt were insufficient compared to other nations with less of a Catholic tradition.
The King told the Pope he would be in the front line if “in defence of the hounded faith you wished to call a Crusade”
Martí argues that, at the Audience, after kissing the Pope’s sandals and ring, Alfonso XIII gave a “grandiloquent” speech, in which he even offered “Spain and its King” to be in the front line “if in defence of the hounded faith, new Urban II, you wished to call a Crusade”.
It is up to each individual’s interpretation if this impassioned defence of the Catholic faith led to a substantial increase in the number of Spanish cardinals. Pius XI named four during his papacy, the same number as his predecessor, Benedict XV. What is true is that relations between Spain and the Vatican improved considerably, as is shown by the letter of congratulations the Pope sent Alfonso XIII on the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne: “We confirm that it has always been your conviction that the prosperity and the glory of Spain is inextricably linked to the flourishing of the Catholic faith”.
In any case, what did have a lot to do with the improvement of bilateral relations was the fact that, after the Royal visit, the Primo de Rivera Government created the Royal Ecclesiastical Patronage Delegate Committee, which left the naming of priests and bishops, except for small exceptions, in the hands of the prelates. With this the Church regained control over an area that up to that point had been in the hands of politicians and which had created quite a lot of friction between the Holy See and previous governments.