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The Historical Legal Status of
Catalonia with respect to Spain

A majority of Catalonians want a nation-state independent of Spain. The Spanish legislature is contemplating ending the monarchy and making Spain a republic. This raises some interesting political legal possibilities.

When the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas and his family thus ending the Russian monarchy Finland gained its independence. The Finns asserted that the only tie between Finland and Russia had been that they had the same monarch. Once the common monarch of Finland and Russia was gone the political tie between Finland and Russia was severed. Lenin allowed Finland to assert its independence, perhaps because he thought the Finnish Bolsheviks would soon bring Finland back into the fold under the control of the Communist Party of Russia.

This webpage examines the legal history of Catalonia to determine whether the tie of Catalonia to the other past kingdoms of Spain is only through having the same monarch.


The Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula is an especially salubrious land that has been occupied by humans since their emergence out of Africa. It was even occupied by Neanderthals before then.

The first Indo-Europeans came into the region about 1000 BCE. These included Celts.

The first cities of the region were established by the Greeks as trading ports. Later the Carthagenians took control up to the Ebro River (Barcelona).

The Carthagenian general, Hannibal Barca, assembled his force of ninety thousand infantry, twelve thousand cavalry and forty war elephants for the invasion of Italy in the region about 218 BCE.

Hannibal did not conquer Rome but Rome gained control of the Catalonian region in 205 BCE. When Rome finally defeated Carthage in 146 BCE Roman control of Catalonia was indisputable and undisputable until the invasion Visigoths after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century CE. The Visigothic King Ataulphus made Barcino (Barcelona) his capital. Ataulphus was murdered in 415 CE and his successors transferred their capital to Toledo.

The rise of Islam in Arabia led in 712 CE to the conquest of Catalonia by the Moors. The Islamic forces continued over the Pyrenees into what is now France. There they countered a resistance aided by Charlemagne that ultimately drove them back over the Pyrenees and liberated parts of Catalonia. Those areas were designated by the Carolingian kings as the Marca Hispanica (Spanish March (border)) and Barcelonian counts were put in control of it. Those counts functioned independently and extended the territory under their control.

In 1137 the ruler of Catalonia, Ramon Berenguer IV, married the daughter of the king of Aragon, thus uniting Catalonia and Aragon.

In the next two century the Aragon-Catalonian kingdom was extended enormously. Sicily and Sardinia came under its control. Naples came under the control of a Catalan dynasty. For a period of time Catalans controlled Athens and other Greek territories.

In 1410 last of the Barcelonian counts died without a male heir and the kingship of Aragon passed to a Castilian. This is when Catalonia lost its sovereignty. In 1474 the king of Aragon, Ferdinand, married Isabel, the queen of Castile, effectively uniting Spain. Ferdinand and Isabel directed their attention to the west and Catalonia suffered a loss of its prestige and power.

In 1640 Catalonia rebelled. It was aided by Louis XII of France and in 1659 a region of Catalonia was detached and made a part of France.

In the War of the Spanish Sucession Catalonia sided with the opposition to Philip V, the eventual winner. Philip's forces captured Barcelona in 1714 and the elements of autonomy for Catalonia were eliminated.

Nevertheless Catalonia went on to become the richest region of Spain. The desire of Catalonian for self rule was never supressed. In 1913 Catalonia was granted a degree of autonomy by the Spanish government in Madrid, but the Spanish dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, eliminated that autonomy.

In 1931 Catalonia took advantage of the political turmoil of the times to assert Catalonian autonomy in the form of the Republic of Catalonia. In 1932 the government of Madrid worked out a compromise in which Catalonia was granted autonomy while remaining part of Spain. But the success of Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War led to the termination of that degree of autonomy for Catalonia in 1938.

After Franco's death the government in Madrid once again granted Catalonia a degree of autonomy which involved having its own parliament and an executive council. In 2014 the Catalonian government is seeking to hold a referendum on additional autonomy and independence and the government in Madrid is denying Catalonians the right to hold such a referendum.

Thus Catalonia has been struggling for nearly a millennium for nationhood. Ironically its lack of autonomy stems from the capture of the kingship of Aragon by a ruler of Catalonia. It is like the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar-baby. Brer Rabbit hit at the Tar-baby and got stuck to it and could not get unstuck.

Such a development has happened before in which one county captures the rulership of another country only to find out the eventually it is the one that has been captured. For example, the kingship of England fell to the royal family of Scotland, thus creating the United Kingdom. But did the seat of power shift away from London to Edinburgh? No, the Scottish royal family moved to London and effectively became English and thus England gained control of Scotland. Or, another example. Manchuria was once a nation separate from China like Korea. In the seventh century the Manchus captured Beijing and became the rulers of China. Within a couple of centuries the Manchu rulers of China became culturally Chinese and Manchuria became merely a province of the Chinese Empire.

So the death of the line Barcelonian counts effectively also led to the death of Catalonian nationhood. The blame falls on the leadership of Catalonia in not achieving a separation of the rulership of Catalonia in 1410 when the kingship of Aragon passed on to Castile. Or perhaps the greater blame rests with the last count of Barcelona in not finding some way to produce a male heir. It is not after all that difficult of an assignment.

But perhaps not all is lost. The question is the legal status of Catalonia and Aragon in the joint kingdom. It could well be as with Finland and Russia in the Russian Empire; i.e, , that there only tie is that they have the same monarch. It is unfortunate that when the last Count of Barcelona died without a male heir that Catalonia did not choose a successor for Catalonia separate from the one chosen for Aragon. But if Spain chooses to abolish the monarchy then the legal tie of Catalonia to the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon is also abolished.

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