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THE PENINSULAr WARS 1807-1814: part 1 -origins

The Peninsular Wars were fought between Napoleon's occupying French Grande Armée and the forces of Spain, Portugal, and Britain, primarily on the Iberian Peninsula. They feature prominently in my first novel, 'Amy, The Story of a Coram'. Amy's on-off lover, Freddy Ponsonby, joins Sir Arthur Wellesley's (later the Duke of Wellington) expeditionary force in the summer of 1809 in Portugal, and he fights right up until Napoleon's abdication in 1814.

The Battle of Talavera
The Battle of Talavera fought in July 1809

The origins of the conflict started with Spain's alliance with France, when the Spanish Secretary of State, and Charles IV of Spain's favourite, Manuel Godoy, signed a pact with France and declared war on Britain in 1796. The Spanish navy were then heavily defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 by the Royal Navy under the command of Admiral Nelson, and their fleet was all but destroyed. This made the alliance with the French highly unpopular, and there were calls for the removal of Godoy, and Charles IV's abdication in favour of his son Crown Prince Ferdinand.

Napoleon then turned his attention to Portugal, which was still trading with Britain and allowing the Royal Navy to use Lisbon to re-stock and re-supply their ships. Napoleon sent an army under Jean-Andoche Junot to invade Portugal overland through Spain with the support of 25,000 Spanish troops, and Lisbon was occupied in November 1807.

Portuguese royal family leaving Lisbon.
The Portuguese royal family leaving Lisbon in 1807

The Prince Regent John, together with his insane mother Queen Maria I, and rest of the Portuguese royal family left Lisbon and went into exile in Brazil assisted by the Royal Navy. Napoleon then sent a 60,000 strong army under the command of Joachim Murat over the Pyrenees into Spain and quickly occupied Navarre, Catalonia, Pamplona, and Barcelona.

Godoy responded by withdrawing Spanish troops from Portugal, but he fell from power after the Mutiny of Aranjuez, which also forced Charles IV to abdicate, and his son now became Ferdinand VII. Murat then marched into and occupied Madrid, sending both Ferdinand VII and Charles IV to appear before Napoleon in Bayonne. Napoleon forced both kings to abdicate and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain.

On hearing of the abdication, the citizens of Madrid rebelled against the new king Joseph I and French occupation, but the rebellion was brutally crushed when Murat sent in the elite Imperial Guard and the Mameluke Cavalry wielding scimitars. The following day, hundreds of rebels were shot by the French, an event immortalised by Goya's painting 'The Third of May 1808'.

Goya's 'The Second of May 1808' or 'The Charge of the Mamelukes'
Goya's depiction of the Mameluke Cavalry suppressing the Madrid uprising in May 1808

After the atrocities in Madrid, the rest of the Spanish provinces rebelled and declared war on France. Portugal followed suit, but the uprising was quickly put down by a French detachment led by Loison. Hearing of the Spanish declaration of war, Napoleon then sent 60,000 more troops into Spain, and five major offensives were launched, but the French were heavily defeated, apart from Marshal Bessières who held most of northern Spain, which allowed Joseph Bonaparte to enter Madrid and be crowned king. General Dupont was marching to take Cordoba but was heavily defeated by General Castaños at the Battle of Bailen, forcing him to surrender the whole Army Corp, making it the first major defeat in a land battle of the Grande Armée.

Portrait of Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain by François Gérard, 1808
Joseph I of Spain, Napoleon's brother

Joseph I and the French army then left Madrid and retreated to Castile. The French military campaign in Spain had now collapsed.


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