Spain’s Peninsular War 1808-14 and the Rise of Liberalism.

19th Century: The Peninsular War or War of Independence.

The early years of the 19th century were messy and humiliating for Spain.  The activities in 1808 of the king, Charles IV, and queen, María Luisa, their son Ferdinand, and Manuel de Godoy –prime minister of the country and the queen’s supposed lover– are the stuff of comic opera.
Goya: The family of Charles IV

But to get an idea of what happened, we have to go back to 1806 when French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, ordered a continental blockade to prevent France’s main enemy, England, from trading with European countries.  Portugal, a long-time ally of England, ignored Napoleon’s command and continued trading with the English.

In October 1807, France and Spain signed a treaty at Fontainebleau (France) to jointly attack Portugal. Spain, still smarting from the destruction of a joint Franco-Spanish fleet by the English at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, saw practical benefits in the treaty: it projected the partitioning of Portugal and its overseas territories between Spain and France.

Godoy, too, would share in the spoils. Having participated in the negotiations, he was to receive an independent principality in the Algarve (southern part of Portugal).

Goya: Manuel de Godoy

In November 1807, Napoleon’s French troops marched into Spain and on to Portugal.  Portugal was soon overrun by French and Spanish troops, but instead of returning to France, on March 9, 1808, Napoleon ordered his army commander, General Murat, to advance on Madrid. Shortly after, Charles, María Luisa, Ferdinand, and Godoy withdrew to the royal summer residence in Aranjuez. Rumour had it that Godoy was arranging for the royal family to leave Spain and flee to South America.

Prince Ferdinand, who hated Godoy, conspired to get rid of the unpopular prime minister who by now had alienated just about everyone. On March 17, peasants and soldiers, egged on by Ferdinand and the royal guard, rioted and forced Charles to have Godoy (who had hidden in a rolled-up carpet!!) arrested. But Charles himself had also lost widespread support, and continued disturbances in Aranjuez persuaded him to abdicate in favour of Ferdinand. In late March, King Ferdinand returned to Madrid to popular acclaim.

Complicated enough? There’s more! Charles, unhappy with having to abdicate, appealed to Napoleon for assistance. In April, 1808, Napoleon summoned Charles, María Luisa, and Ferdinand to meet him at Bayonne, on the French border (Godoy, rescued from captivity, also accompanied them!). There, Napoleon compelled both Charles and Ferdinand to renounce all rights to the throne. The final humiliation came when Napoleon unilaterally offered the throne to his older brother, Joseph, and kept the royal family and Godoy in France.

In Spain, reaction to what had happened in Bayonne was fast. It was clear by now that the French were no longer allies but occupiers, with French troops also moving south into Andalusia. In addition, a letter from Ferdinand, smuggled to Madrid, left little doubt that he was held captive. On May 2, 1808, a popular uprising in the capital was crushed by the French. The event was immortalised in two paintings by Goya: The Second of May, 1808, and The Third of May, 1808.

Goya: The Third of May, 1808

Spanish authorities, however, did little to support the uprising. The Council of Castile and a Junta (Assembly) that Ferdinand had left in charge while he attended Napoleon in Bayonne had strict instructions to cultivate the friendship of the French since Ferdinand sought Napoleon’s support for his position as king. In addition, in the face of superior French military power, both the Spanish army and civilian authorities felt order was wiser than insurrection.

Members of the Council advised calm even after the May 2 rebellion was brutally put down. But as news of the slaughter in Madrid spread unrest grew until finally, towards the end of May, outbreaks throughout the country signalled the beginning of widespread opposition.

These outbreaks were headed by local juntas (committees) of citizens  which initially acted very much as independent states, going so far as to declare war on the French. For example, on May 25, 1808, the General Assembly (Junta) of Asturias (an area of historical significance as a centre of resistance, e.g. against the Romans ca. 29 BC or against the Moors ca. 720 AD.) declared war against Napoleon.  It was only after these popular demonstrations against the French that the Spanish army finally rose. So began the War of Independence (or the Peninsular War).

Quite soon, the need for more cooperation saw the establishment of a larger, central representative body to govern in the king’s absence, the Junta Central. This had a chequered history and proved incapable of organising effective opposition.

Following French advances into Andalusia, the Junta Central withdrew in January 1810 to the one city that –thanks to its location, and protection offered by British troops– offered relative safety against the invaders: Cádiz. Here members of the failed Junta resigned and were replaced temporarily by a Regency of Five.

It soon became apparent, however, that a more substantial body was required to articulate the nation’s identity and safeguard its unity in the absence of its king. The vehicle for this was the Cortes, a representative body whose long history gave it legitimate authority. The Cortes met in Cádiz between 1810 and 1812. By the time it finished its deliberations, it had changed the political face of Spain for good.

The church, too, added its weight to the resistance.  Most of its members –whether secular or regular– resorted to an historical appeal: a holy crusade. Verbal cannonballs were tossed from the pulpits against the Napoleon, the new Attila, and his heretical hordes! The Spanish response was in a way a new reconquest, marking the first time since the late Middle Ages that Spaniards were forced to drive out an alien force that had taken control of most of the peninsula.

Although the occupying forces in Spain in May 1808 did not make up the elite of the French army, little was expected in opposition from Spanish soldiers. Napoleon did not even bother to accompany his troops. Nevertheless, against the odds, the Spaniards did score some small victories.

José Casado del Alisal: Spanish victory at Bailén (painted in 1864)

Then a major victory was achieved in Bailén (Andalusia) on July 19, 1808. It was the first defeat suffered by Napoleon’s armies in open battle, and the news quickly spread throughout French occupied Europe.  If the Spaniards could defeat the French, then why not other countries? Predictably, the defeat at Bailén infuriated Napoleon, who could see the implications.

There was also another threat to Napoleon. On August 17 1808, the English, fearful of total French control of the peninsula, entered into battle for the first time in the Peninsular War. Joining forces with Portuguese soldiers, they forced French troops to retreat at the Battle of Rolica and four days later from Vimeiro. By the end of August, French troops were out of Portugal.

In November 1808, Napoleon himself arrived, at the head of a large force. The Spanish and English were to be taught a lesson! The Spanish, carried away by their victory at Bailén, were blind to Napoleon’s determination and to their military inadequacies.  And British help stumbled badly when in January 1809, English forces led by Sir John Moore were forced to retreat to La Coruña (Galicia).

In the ensuing battle, Moore was killed and his soldiers forced to evacuate by sea. Seven months later, following the Battle of Talavera de la Reina (central Spain), the Duke of Wellington had to retreat to Portugal, fuming at what he considered to be total Spanish incompetence. In this both he and Napoleon were of like mind. By this time, Napoleon had returned to France to attend to problems arising in Austria.

French military superiority culminated eventually in the battle of Ocaña (east of Toledo) in September 1809. After Ocaña the Spanish army was to all intents destroyed, with some 18,000 Spaniards killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The initiative was now with France, with French troops reinforcing their occupation of Andalusia.

For the next three years, battle for the peninsula seesawed back and forth over much of Spain (the south east was the least affected).  What swung the pendulum back finally in Anglo-Portuguese-Spanish favour was Napoleon’s decision to transfer soldiers to the Russian front in mid 1812. It allowed Anglo-Portuguese troops to take the offensive again in Spain.

Victories over the weakened French in Ciudad Rodrigo in January, Badajoz in April and Salamanca in July 1812, were followed by the liberation of Madrid in August. Another victory in Vitoria (in Euskadi/ Basque Provinces) in June 1813 prompted the French to withdraw from all the peninsula except Catalonia**.

**In 1812, Napoleon had annexed Catalonia and
divided it into four departments: Ter, Montserrat,
Segre and Boques d’Ebre.

But the end was now in sight, and by the end of 1813, the War of Independence was over. At the Treaty of Valençay in December of that year, Napoleon renounced all rights on Spain; in March 1814 the man on behalf of whom the War had been fought, Ferdinand VII, El Deseado (the “Desired One”) finally returned to reclaim his throne.
A combination of factors helps explain Napoleon’s defeat in Spain: 1) the commitment of the Spanish people to rid themselves of the occupier, 2) extensive use of guerrilla warfare, 3) assistance from the English and 4) Napoleon’s decision to withdraw thousands of troops in 1812 to invade Russia.

It is unlikely that the guerrillas would have been able to defeat the French on their own. It is equally unlikely that Wellington could have conquered the enemy without the guerrillas, whose unorthodox methods –harassment, sabotage, attack and run etc.– constantly bewildered and undermined the French. The constant sabotaging in turn led to frequent starvation and disease in the French camps.

It was during the Penisular War that the
term “guerrilla” warfare (from the Spanish
guerra = “war”) entered our  idiom.

The guerrilla fighters were made up of remnants of the Spanish army –after its dispersal following the defeat at Ocaña– and groups of armed citizens, sometimes led by army officers, sometimes by local civilians (including a miller, a shepherd, a charcoal burner, bandits and in two cases, priests). Part of a widespread rural phenomenon, the guerrillas frequently fought on their own initiative.

The war was not just a war of liberation. It was also a defence of traditional Spanish values of God, King, country, church against heretical, republican France. The absent Ferdinand –still king in the public mind—was the embodiment of those traditions. To the people he was El Deseado (“The Desired One”).

Still, we should be cautious about seeing the rebels as a homogeneous group.  There were social as well as political grievances to settle. For example, some sought freedom from long held seigneurial/ feudal privileges and entitlements enjoyed by nobles over their territories. On the other hand, there were those who fought to retain those privileges and resisted the very idea of reform. Yet others attacked and pillaged monasteries and convents in pent-up anticlerical rage**.

**There was, too, a fairly substantial minority –known as afrancesados “Pro-French”—who accepted and even supported French intervention.  Their reasons were many, e.g. belief that reforms were best achieved under French guidance, fear of the dangers to social security posed by the guerrilla fighters, admiration for French sophistication etc.

But whatever the cause, the War of Independence ironically demonstrated what the people could do in the absence of strong national leadership.  In other words, the war contained seeds of a destabilising social process that would eventually lead to political parties, workers’ unions, anarchism and reawakened regionalism.

What is ironic about the War of Independence is that in fighting to safeguard tradition and  preserve the purity of Spain against heresy, it deployed the power of the people, and demonstrated what they could do in the absence of king or strong national leadership.

Its intent was conservative but the result was potentially subversive. As long as the French, the common enemy, were the target, the country was united and the danger of subversion was contained. But the subsequent instability of the 19th century shows how difficult it was to keep the subversive genie bottled once let loose.

Through its call to a crusading patriotism, the Peninsular War revived the cult of the strong leader and the long dormant idea of the medieval man of action. Guerrilla warfare also “romanticised revolution and regularised insubordination, sanctifying that preference for violent individual action that was to bedevil the politics of nineteenth-century Spain” (Carr 1, 109).

Goya: Disasters of War. At the bottom we read: Esto es peor: “This is worse.”

At the same time, the war also unleashed the baser instincts of mankind, with atrocities being committed on both sides. The horrors of unrestrained viciousness are graphically captured in Goya’s etchings The Disasters of War (mainly done between 1810 and 1814).

Goya: Ferdinand VII

Ferdinand was greeted ecstatically on his return, but he had been away for six years and monumental changes had taken place beyond the battles against Napoleon. The most fundamental was the writing of a constitution in 1812, the first in Spain’s history.

The 1812 Constitution was a liberal creation which set the stage for conflict between traditionalists and progressives throughout the 19th century. It was, together with the political and social fallout of the War of Independence, the key to Spain’s instability in the 19th century.


Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond  Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Gates, David  The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War Cambridge, MA 2002
Phillips, William D. and Phillips, Carla R. A Concise History of Spain Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2010
For a good chronology of the Peninsular War, see
Image of Charles IV’s family:
Image of Godoy: “Manuel Godoy Spain” by Francisco Goya:
Image of victory at Bailén:
Goya: The Disasters of War:,_con_muertos.jpg 
Image of Ferdinand VII: