Esquilache, the scapegoat
Charles III was the king of Spain from 1759 to 1788. He was the king of Naples before, from 1734 to 1759. He brought some Italian ministers, who were in charge of putting the reforms into practice. Leopoldo di Gregorio, Marquis of Esquilache, was one of Charles III´s most trusted secretaries. First, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury and later he became Secretary of War and Navy and finally Secretary of State, the highest rank post in the Bourbons´ bureaucracy. In this post he implemented several reforms on Charles III´s behalf:
- He reduced the privileges of the Church.
- He created the first lottery in Spain.
- He created a fund for widows and orphans of the members of the Army.
- He liberalized the prices of wheat and some other basic products, in order to stop hoarders´ speculation.
- He modernized the city of Madrid, one of the dirtiest capital cities in Europe: some municipal ordinances prohibited throwing garbage of dirty water to the streets, many streets were paved and 5,000 lampposts were installed in Madrid.
But the most unpopular decision was the one related to clothes and public order: Esquilache ordered replacing long cloaks and broad brimmed hats (chambergos) for short cloaks and three-cornered hats, because many criminals took advantage of the usual Spanish clothes to hide their faces and escape justice.
The privileged, who didn´t like Esquilache´s power, used popular discontent by this public order ordinance and the increase of prices of bread and other staple food to instigate the revolt against the hated secretary. The riot started on the 23th March 1766 in different cities of Spain, but was more serious in Madrid: the rioters destroyed the 5,000 streetlights, burnt Esquilache´s residence, the House of the Seven Chimneys (a very curious building, with several legends behind), and demanded Esquilache´s dismissal to the king. Charles III gave up and dismissed Esquilache, who was appointed ambassador in Venice. The revolt finished after three days. Apparently the rioters got what they wanted, but the enlightened reforms didn´t stop. Charles III continued his reform program in some fields (economy, administration and education) and went on with the idea of imposing the royal authority over the Church. The last consequence of the Esquilache Riots was the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. The king accused them of having been responsible for the riots, but the truth was that the Jesuits were an important power in the kingdom and the king wanted to take control over their possessions.