The Esquilache Riots (Motín de Esquilache) occurred in March 1766 during the rule of Charles III of Spain. Caused mostly by the growing discontent in Madrid about the rising costs of bread and other staples, they were sparked off by a series of measures regarding Spaniards' apparel that had been enacted by Leopoldo de Gregorio, Marquis of Esquilache, a Neapolitan minister whom Charles favored.
Esquilache's plan was to substitute the long capes and broad-brimmed hats (chambergos) worn by madrileños with French-style short capes and three-cornered hats, in an attempt to modernize Spain. The long capes were thought to facilitate the concealment of weapons, while the large hats were thought to conceal a person's face, a safeguard for criminals.
Intended as public security measures, they did not immediately catch the attention of the populace, as more pressing issues fanned the flames of popular discontent, namely the rising prices in bread, oil, coal, and cured meat, caused in part by Esquilache's liberalization of the grain trade. Moreover, these measures at first were only applied to the royal household and staff (January 21, 1766).
Under pain of arrest, these royal functionaries adopted the measures en masse. Having applied these initial measures, Esquilache proceeded to apply them towards the general population. The writer and government official Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes and the body known as the Council of Castile warned him that the confiscation of hats and cloaks would cause ominous rumbling amongst the populace.
Esquilache nevertheless went ahead with these measures, and on March 10, placards appeared in Madrid prohibiting the wearing of these garments. Popular reaction was immediate: the placards were torn off the walls. Soldiers were mobilized and local authorities were attacked by the populace.
The riots begin
On Palm Sunday, around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, two townsmen, dressed in the forbidden long capes and chambergos, provocatively crossed the little square of Antón Martín. Several soldiers on guard duty stopped them to inquire about their garments. Insults were exchanged and the soldiers tried to detain them. One of the townsmen unsheathed a sword and whistled. A band of townspeople appeared and the soldiers fled. The rioters quickly took over Plaza de los Inválidos where muskets and sabers were stored. 2,000 rioters marched on the Calle Atocha to the Plaza Mayor, yelling insults against Esquilache. They ran into Luis Antonio Fernández de Córdoba y Spínola, the 11th Duke of Medinaceli, whom they surrounded, and they forced him to approach the king with a series of petitions.
The duke approached the king, who remained calm, unaware of the seriousness of the situation. The rioters meanwhile had destroyed the 5,000 lampposts that had been erected throughout the city by order of the king. The rioters' petition had included the demand that the hated Guardia Valona (Walloon Guard) be disbanded. A servant attached to Esquilache's household was also knifed when the rioters made their way to the minister's mansion, which they sacked. They also stoned the mansion of the Grimaldi and approached the mansion of the Sabatini. That night, a portrait of Esquilache was burned in the Plaza Mayor. The king still had done nothing.
On March 24, the situation worsened. The rioters, much strengthened in numbers and in confidence, marched towards where the king was residing, in the Arco de la Armería de Palacio, which was defended by Spanish troops alongside the Walloons.
The Walloon troops fired and killed a woman, increasing the number of rioters. A priest who made himself the rioters' representative managed to make his way to Charles and present him with the petitions. The priest's tone was ominous, and he promised to reduce the king's palace to rubble within two hours if the demands were not met. The rioters' demands included:
- That the minister Esquilache and all of his family leave Spain.
- That there only be Spanish ministers in the government.
- That the Walloon Guard be disbanded.
- That the price of basic goods be lowered.
- That the Juntas de Abastos be suppressed.
- That the troops withdraw to their respective headquarters.
- That the use of the long cape and broad-brimmed hat be permitted.
- That His Majesty show himself and speak from his own mouth his desire to fulfill and satisfy these demands.
The king was inclined to accept the demands, despite being counselled not do so by several of his ministers. Those ministers who believed he should accept the rioters' demands emphasized the fact that the riots were not a challenge against royal authority, but that they could develop into such should the demands be ignored. Charles appeared on the palace balcony. The rioters once again presented their demands. Charles calmly acceded to their demands. He and his Walloon Guard retired to the palace.
This act temporarily calmed the populace. However, fearing for his own safety, Charles then committed the mistake of fleeing to Aranjuez with the rest of his family and his ministers, including Esquilache.
A military junta took measures to restore order. The city remained calm. However, upon hearing that Charles had left secretly for Aranjuez, anger spread that the king had simply accepted the demands in order to make his subsequent escape. There were also fears that a large force of royal troops would approach Madrid and crush the revolt.
In reaction to these fears, some 30,000 people, including men, women, and children, surrounded the house of Diego Rojas Contreras, bishop of Cartagena and president of the Council of Castile. The bishop was instructed to inform the king of the mood and draw up a series of demands. An emissary was sent to Aranjuez and the bishop remained trapped. Meanwhile, the townspeople had begun to sack military buildings and stores, releasing prisoners. The king replied with a letter that stated that he sincerely promised to comply with the demands of his people, and asked for calm and order.
This calmed the populace once again. Esquilache was also dismissed, a move that both Charles and Esquilache lamented. Esquilache felt that his measures had deserved a statue, and would comment that he had cleaned and paved the city streets and had created boulevards and had nevertheless been dismissed. He was given the ambassadorship to Venice, where he subsequently died.
Still fearing for his own safety, Charles remained at Aranjuez, leaving the government in the hands of his minister Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea, Count of Aranda. Doing so damaged his reputation. The king remained at Aranjuez as Aranda and troops were sent there to protect him. Aranda's arrival calmed Charles down but the king remained in the city until mid-April.
In Madrid, Aranda meanwhile had convinced the populace to adopt the French-style short capes and three-cornered hats, first meeting with the members of Madrid's five major guilds (Gremios Mayores) and 53 minor guilds (Gremios Menores). Aranda managed to convince these members that the chambergo and the long cape was nothing but the apparel of el verdugo –the hated hangman or executioner- and that no respectable person would wear such a thing. The populace thus gradually and peacefully adopted more modern apparel.
Charles III's advisers blamed the riots as a plot organized by the Jesuits. The riots thus helped seal the fate of the Jesuits, already not in favor in Charles III's court; the Spanish Crown expelled the Jesuits in January 1767 and dismantled the Jesuit missions of the Americas which had functioned as an "Empire within an Empire."
Despite the near-insurrection of the populace, Charles would continue his program of reforms. The painter Francisco de Goya, an eyewitness to these events, would paint his Motín de Esquilache around 1766-7.
- In 1698 Czar Peter the Great commanded all of his courtiers and officials to cut off their long beards and wear European clothing.
- British youths in hoodies have been the target of a campaign by Tony Blair based on the assumption that hoods conceal the identity of criminals.
- In Turkey, in 1925, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk banned the traditional local hat, the fez as a decadent costume herited from the decadent Ottoman Empire.
- (Spanish) Motín de Esquilache
- López, Adalberto (2007) [first published 1976]. The Colonial History of Paraguay: The Revolt of the Comuneros, 1721-1735. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. pp. 162–163. ISBN 978-0-7658-0745-8.