The French invasion of Spain, February-May 1808

The Peninsular War was one of Napoleon’s greatest blunders, leading to seven years of warfare and ending with an invasion of France, but it began with a an almost effortless occupation of Madrid, Old Castile and the fortresses on the Pyrenees, followed by a cynical but well managed abduction of the Spanish royal family. Spain was officially allied with France at the time of the French invasion, but for some time Napoleon had been dissatisfied with the performance of his ally, especially after the Spanish fleet was destroyed at Trafalgar, and was known to have said that a Bourbon Spain was too week as an ally but potentially a dangerous enemy. Napoleon’s suspicions had been raised during the Jena campaign of 1806, when the Spanish government had issued a proclamation calling on the people to unite against an unnamed enemy, widely assumed to be France. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s victory at Jena the proclamation had been withdrawn, but the damage was done.

Spain in 1808 was ruled by Charles IV, the last surviving Bourbon king in Europe. He was widely considered to be an imbecile who was entirely dominated by his wife Maria Luisa and her favourite, Don Manuel Godoy. Charles had denied any role during the reign of his father Charles III, and had come to the throne at the age of 40. At first power was held by the queen, but within a few years Godoy had risen from the ranks (he was a private in the royal bodyguard, and a minor nobleman) to the status of prime minister. After negotiating the peace of Basle, which ended the Franco-Spanish War of 1793-1795, he had been awarded with the title of Prince of the Peace. Godoy was corrupt and ambitious but ineffective, although he was also moderately progressive, a supporter of vaccination and an opponent of the Inquisition. Lurking behind the scenes was Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias, the heir to the throne. Just like his father he had been excluded from all government business for most of his life, but as his parents aged, Ferdinand began to attract a group of supporters. Unfortunately he would turn out to be ignorant, cowardly, and on his return to power in 1814 despotic and tyrannical.

Ferdinand’s main concern by 1807 was a fear that Godoy was planning to exclude him from the succession, and seize the throne in his own name. Despite all the pleadings of his supporters, Ferdinand took no action against Godoy, but in the autumn of 1807 he decided to write to Napoleon, asking for a French princess to marry, and for Napoleon’s support against Godoy and his father. Godoy soon learnt of this letter, and on 27 October 1807 Ferdinand was arrested and his quarters searched. There Godoy’s men discovered two letters of complaint that Ferdinand had drafted but never sent. This was just enough for Godoy to convince Charles to arrest his son and announce that Ferdinand had been planning to overthrown his father. Whatever plans Godoy had for Ferdinand were derailed by Napoleon, who intervened to make it clear that his involvement in the affair must not be revealed. Ferdinand was forced to write a grovelling letter of apology, and was by 5 November was partially restored. The whole episode became known as the “Affair of the Escurial”, and it played a considerable part in speeding up Napoleon’s plans against Spain.

The first French troops to enter Spain were the 25,000 men of General Junot’s First Corps of Observation of the Gironde, who passed through on their way to Portugal in October-November 1807. Under the terms of the agreement between France and Spain, the French were allowed to send reinforcements to Portugal if the British intervened, but only after giving Charles IV due notice, but Junot had met no opposition at all, and the British were still months away from intervening when on 22 November the Second Corps of Observation of the Gironde began to enter Spain. This force of 30,000 men under General Dupont made no effort to move towards Portugal. Behind them in France three more corps began to take shape – the Corps of Observation of the Ocean under Marshal Moncey, the Corps of Observation of the Pyrenees and the Corps of Observation of the Eastern Pyrenees. On 8 January 1808 Moncey’s men crossed into Spain, and the 55,000 Frenchmen under Dupont and Moncey began to spread out across Old Castile, Biscay and Navarre.

Up until February it was just possible for the French to claim that these 55,000 troops were travelling through Spain to Portugal under the terms of the Franco-Spanish alliance, but on 10 February 18,000 men of the Corps of Observation of the Eastern Pyrenees, under General Duhesme, began to cross into Catalonia. There was no way that these men were heading for Portugal.

Only a few days later the French finally revealed their intentions, seizing a series of Spanish border fortresses. Pampeluna was taken by surprise on 16 February, as was Barcelona on 29 February and Figueras on 18 March. Only at San Sebastian did the garrison put up any resistance, but the commander was under orders not to resist any French assault, and the place fell on 5 March.

The reaction in Madrid to this open aggression was chaotic. Charles IV and his advisor Godoy had responded to the first French moves in November by asking Napoleon if he could find a suitable female relative to marry Prince Ferdinand. Napoleon did not respond until after his return from Italy in January 1808, and in his reply made it clear that he did not think Ferdinand was a suitable match for any of his relatives, hardly a reassuring response. Even after the seizure of the border fortresses, Charles failed to declare war, apparently refusing to believe that Napoleon had betrayed him.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

Although Napoleon had been planning to intervene in Spain for some time, he still did not have his long term plans in place. At first the overall command in Spain was given to Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, who was appointed “Lieutenant of the Emperor” in Spain. On 26 February he reached Bayonne, on 10 March crossed into Spain, and on 13 March reached Burgos. On 27 March he offered the throne to his brother Louis, then the King of Holland, but Louis refused. Napoleon then repeated the offer to his brother Joseph, then the King of Naples, and Joseph accepted the offer.

By that point the Spanish throne had changed hands. When it became clear that the French would soon be at Madrid, Godoy, Charles, Ferdinand and the Spanish court moved to Aranjuez, the first step on a longer journey to the coast and then to Mexico or Argentina. On the night of 17 March, the court was ready to move from Aranjuez, but the mob discovered their plans. At this point Ferdinand was an unknown quantity, and was thus far more popular than his father. When the crowd threatened violence, Charles was forced to turn to his son for help. That night Godoy was removed from his posts, and two days later Charles abdicated in favour of his son.

Ferdinand VII began his reign with massive public support, much to Napoleon’s surprise. He had believed that Ferdinand had been discredited by the affair of the Escurial, and had based his plans on the expectation that his armies would be deposing the unpopular Godoy. Murat, as the man on the scene, found himself in a difficult position, but luckily for the French Ferdinand still believed that he could win over Napoleon. Instead of taking command of the army, and making himself the figurehead of the resistance, on 24 March, the day after Murat and 20,000 men reached the city, Ferdinand returned to Madrid.

Murat handled the situation with some skill. He refused to acknowledge Ferdinand as king, and opened communications with Charles, who was easily persuaded to write a letter to Napoleon complaining that he had been forced to abdicate against his will. This would play an important part in the upcoming betrayal at Bayonne. Napoleon decided to make a personal intervention in Spain. He decided to lure Ferdinand out of Madrid, towards the French border, and if possible to convince him to come to Bayonne. First Ferdinand was told that Napoleon was planning to visit Madrid, and the French even went as far as preparing a palace to receive the Emperor. In fact Napoleon had no intention of coming any further than Burgos. On 10 April Ferdinand left Madrid, arriving on Burgos on 12 April. On 18 April he received a letter from Napoleon, inviting him on to Bayonne. In this letter Napoleon promised to recognise Ferdinand as long as his father’s abdication had been spontaneous. By this time Napoleon had already received the letter from Charles in which he made it clear this was not the case.

Ferdinand was still hoped that he could trust Napoleon, and so on 19 April left Burgos, arriving at Bayonne on the following day. One hour after meeting Napoleon over dinner, Ferdinand received a letter informing him that Napoleon had decided that the best thing for Spain would be the replacement of the Bourbon dynasty by a French prince. Despite the weakness of his position, Ferdinand refused to abdicate. Napoleon then summoned Charles to Bayonne. On 30 April the royal couple joined their son in French captivity. Even now Ferdinand refused to abdicate.

Napoleon’s limited patience soon wore thin. News reached Bayonne of the riots that had broken out in Madrid on 2 May, and he responded by telling Ferdinand either that he would be treated as a “traitor and rebel” if he did not abdicate (this is Napoleon’s own version of events), or that he had to chose between “abdication and death”, a more dramatic version of essentially the same threat. On 6 May Ferdinand finally agreed to officially return the crown to his father. Only then did he discover than on the previous day Charles had abdicated in favour of Napoleon. Ferdinand would spend the next seven years a prisoner at Talleyrand’s estate of Valençay. On 10 May Ferdinand officially gave up all claims to the throne of Spain.

As news from Bayonne slowly leaked back into Spain, a wave of popular discontent threatened to break out into open resistance. The first outbreak came on 2 May at Madrid (the “Dos Mayo”), and was soon put down by the French. In the provinces the news from Madrid and the news from Bayonne combined to trigger the first of the major uprisings, when on 24 May the province of the Asturias declared war on Napoleon. Over the next month most of the rest of Spain followed suit, and by the time Joseph was officially declared King of Spain on 15 June the French only held those parts of Spain directly occupied by their garrisons. Joseph’s kingdom consisted of an area around Barcelona, and a wedge that ran along the main road from Bayonne to Vittoria, Burgos and Madrid, reaching as far as Toledo. The Spanish uprising had begun.

 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.
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History of the Peninsular War vol.1: 1807-1809 - From the Treaty of Fontainebleau to the Battle of Corunna, Sir Charles Oman. The first volume of Oman's classic seven volume history of the Peninsular War, this is one of the classic works of military history and provides an invaluable detailed narrative of the fighting in Spain and Portugal. This first volume covers the initial French intervention, the start of the Spanish uprising, the early British involvement in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon's own brief visit to Spain.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 March 2008), The French invasion of Spain, February-May 1808,

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