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Napoleonic Wars: French Invasion of Spain 1808

Updated on June 27, 2012

The Peninsular

The Iberian Peninsula in the early 19th Century.
The Iberian Peninsula in the early 19th Century. | Source

Spain's King

Charles or Carlos IV of Spain.
Charles or Carlos IV of Spain. | Source

A New Target

After the relatively easy pacification of Portugal, Napoleon's eye now swung over to their close neighbours, Spain. Of course at the time Napoleon was bound by the Franco-Spanish alliance, which made plans of conquest tricky. The accord between the two countries had been essential for the successful invasion of Portugal, as the 25,000 men under General Junot had to pass through Spain on their way to Lisbon. Under the terms of their agreement, the French were allowed to send reinforcements to Portugal if required, but only after giving Spanish King Charles IV due notice. But after the easy capture if Lisbon, in which the French met no resistance at all, surely the troops that Junot left behind in Bayonne as a backup would not be needed. But it seems that the 30,000 men of the Second Observation Corps under General Dupont had never been intended to be used as reinforcements at all.

While Junot was tidying up his affairs in Portugal, Dupont and his force of 30,000 were ordered to march into Spain, crossing the border on the 22nd November. Of course initially the sight of French troops entering Spain wouldn’t have provoked too much alarm. But eyebrows were quickly raised in the Spanish Court, when it became apparent that Dupont’s force was making no efforts whatsoever to move towards Portugal. Furthermore, back in France another force of 25,000 under the command of Marshal Moncey was making ready to cross into Spain.


On the 8th January Moncey finally received orders to proceed, he crossed the Pyrenees and duly combined his force with Dupont’s to form a formidable invasion force totalling some 55,000 men. In no time at all, they fanned out across Castile, Biscay and Navarre. Amazingly, despite these rather disturbing events, from the Spanish perspective at least, it was still possible for the French to claim that this huge force was travelling to Portugal, albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion. However, the beginning of February saw the evaporation of any sort of accord with Spain when a Corps of 18,000 men under the command of General Duhesme crossed into Spain, spilling into Catalonia.

In no time at all, Napoleon’s true intentions came to the surface, as his men seized a series of Spanish border fortresses. On the morning of the 16th February a small number of unarmed French troops approached the fortress town of Pamplona, and proceeded to loiter outside the gates of the citadel, masquerading as ordinary citizens waiting for a distribution of rations. Under the cover of a snowball fight, they rushed towards the gate and manage to overpower and disarm the guards. Soon after, a company of hardened French grenadiers accompanied by an extra battalion of foot soldiers stormed the fortress. The Spanish were unarmed, ill prepared and completely overwhelmed. The entire garrison was ejected from the fortress within a few hours.

Two weeks later Barcelona fell to the French under similar circumstances when a General Lecchi who was leading his troops through the city, suddenly ordered his troops to wheel to the left, just as they approached the citadel. Once again, the bemused Spanish were caught off guard, and soon thousands of French troops were inside the citadel. By day’s end, the fortress was totally secure. The French employed similar tactics to capture Figueras, and while they failed to capture San Sebastian with the same methods, they did persuade the fortress town to surrender when threatened with an assault.

The Heir to the Throne

Charles' Son, Ferdinand who would take overrule of Spain after his father's abdication.
Charles' Son, Ferdinand who would take overrule of Spain after his father's abdication. | Source

Chaos at Court

Unsurprisingly the reaction in Madrid to this open aggression was chaotic. When the French had originally used Spain as a thoroughfare to invade Portugal, Charles approached Napoleon asking him if he could find a suitable female relative to marry his son and heir to the throne, Prince Ferdinand. Napoleon didn’t respond to the proposal until after he returned from a trip to Italy. When he did finally reply, he made it clear that he didn’t consider Ferdinand to be a suitable match for any of his relatives. Amazingly, even after the rather underhanded and deft capture of the fortress towns, Charles seemed to be suffering from an extreme case of denial, refusing to believe that Napoleon had actually betrayed him, thus there was no official declaration of war against France by Spain.

Despite the fact that Napoleon had clearly intended to intervene in some way in Spain for some time, there were still no visible signs of a long term plan. At first, he appointed his brother in law, Joachim Murat as the ‘Lieutenant of the Emperor’ in Spain, effectively making him ruler of the country. On the 26th February, Napoleon himself reached Bayonne, crossing into Spain in the first week of March, before coming to a halt at Burgos on the 13th March. By the end of the month, things had changed again, when he decided offer rule of Spain to his brother Louis, who was also King of Holland, but he refused. Napoleon then proceeded to outline the same offer to another brother, Joseph, also the King of Naples. Joseph accepted the offer and became King of Spain, in Napoleon’s eyes at least.

By this point, it had become abundantly clear to the Spanish Court that Napoleon intended to march on Madrid, so they elected to move to Aranjuez, the first step towards a total escape of the country. The Royal Family intended to flee to either Mexico or Argentina. On the night of the 17th March, all the preparations had been made to make their escape, but the local mob soon got wind of their plans and threatened violence. Charles, who was by and large an unpopular King agreed to abdicate and allow his more popular son to become Ferdinand VII.

Ferdinand began his reign amid massive public support, much to the surprise of Napoleon who had wrongly believed that Ferdinand’s character had been discredited during the affair at Escurial, where he had been accused of treason by his father. Napoleon’s plans had in fact rested largely on the expectation that his armies would have to depose the unpopular advisor to Charles, Godoy. But he had already gone, dismissed by Charles himself just prior to his abdication. Joachim Murat, the Emperor’s man on the scene now found himself in a rather awkward position, but luckily for the French, Ferdinand remained confident that he could still win Napoleon’s support. So instead of rallying his nation and making himself a figurehead of some grand resistance movement, he elected to return to Madrid, arriving on the 24th March, a day after Murat and 20,000 men reached the city.

Marching on Madrid

Murat's army marching on Madrid in the spring of 1808.
Murat's army marching on Madrid in the spring of 1808. | Source

The Emperor's Lieutenant

Joachim Murat, the man who Napoleon entrusted to bring about the end of Bourbon rule in Spain.
Joachim Murat, the man who Napoleon entrusted to bring about the end of Bourbon rule in Spain. | Source

More on the Peninsular War

The End of Spanish Rule

The actions that followed seemed to vindicate Napoleon’s decision to send Murat to Spain as his ‘Lieutenant of the Emperor’. Firstly Murat refused to acknowledge Ferdinand as King, then he opened communications with former King Charles who was cleverly persuaded to write a letter to Napoleon complaining that he had been forced to abdicate against his will. Now the time came for the Emperor to intervene personally, he elected to try to lure Ferdinand out of Madrid and bring him closer to the French border, if possible he wanted him to come to Bayonne. Firstly, Ferdinand was informed that Napoleon intended to visit him in Madrid, and the French played the game well, even going so far as to preparing a palace to receive their Emperor. Of course though, Napoleon had no intention whatsoever of journeying to Madrid, in fact he was adamant that he would travel no further south than Burgos. On the 10th April, Ferdinand left Madrid, arriving in Burgos two days later. A week later, he received a letter from Napoleon inviting him for an audience in Bayonne. Napoleon weaved Ferdinand round his little finger by promising to recognise him as King as long as he could verify that his father’s abdication had been wilful. By this time Napoleon had already received word from Charles indicating that this was most definitely not the case.

Ferdinand foolishly still hoped that he could trust Napoleon and left Burgos for Bayonne, arriving on the 20th April. One hour after a cordial dinner with the Emperor, Ferdinand received a letter stating clearly that Napoleon had decided that the best thing for Spain was the removal of the Bourbon dynasty and for it to be replaced by a French Prince. Ferdinand knew that his position was weak considering the might of the French army, but he refused to abdicate. An enraged Napoleon promptly summoned Charles to Bayonne and placed the two Royals on captivity on the 30th April. But even now, Ferdinand still refused to abdicate.

Whatever patience Napoleon had left soon wore away completely as he received the grave news that riots had erupted in Madrid at the start of May. His response to Ferdinand was blunt; if he refused to abdicate then he would die. On the 6th May, Ferdinand VII reluctantly agreed to hand the crown back to his father, but upon doing so learnt that his father had agreed to abdicate again in favour of Napoleon. As a result, Ferdinand would be forced to spend the next seven years as a prisoner in the Talleyrand Estate of Valencay. On the 10th May, Ferdinand made his abdication official and gave up all claims to the Spanish throne.

The Mob Fights Back

The riots that began primarily in Madrid set about the start of the Peninsular War where Spain and Portugal would both fight for their independence in the face of Napoleonic oppression.
The riots that began primarily in Madrid set about the start of the Peninsular War where Spain and Portugal would both fight for their independence in the face of Napoleonic oppression. | Source

The Tiger Awakes

It didn’t take long for the rest of Spain to digest the extraordinary news coming out of Bayonne. The reaction was a rolling wave of popular discontent that quickly threatened to erupt into outright anarchy. The first outbreaks actually began before Ferdinand’s abdication when widespread riots broke out in Madrid, but these were quickly put down by the French. But news of the growing resistance quickly spread to the provinces. On the 24th May the province of the Asturias became the first to declare outright war on Napoleon. Over the next month or so, the rest of Spain followed suit. Napoleon despite facing another long and bloody war officially declared his brother Joseph as the new King of Spain on the 15th June. In reality though, Joseph’s Kingdom only consisted of an area surrounding Barcelona and a wedge that covered an area including Vitoria, Burgos and Madrid.

Spain was a sleeping tiger; this wasn’t the first time she had been conquered; a thousand years before Muslims from North Africa had swept across the country en route to Rome. It may have taken the Spanish 600 years to drive the Muslims out of their country entirely, but they had still accomplished it. A new Spanish uprising had started, the Peninsular War had begun.

More to follow...


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    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England Debbie, unfortunately I don't have any major in history, all I have is an enquiring mind and a love of the past. Thanks again.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      wow how awesome and interesting.. You must be a history major? I love history I will be reading more of your work


    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much for your kind words as always Christopher, and yes indeed it does have all the makings of a Shakespearian play, hadn't really thought of it like that, but now you mention it...

      Can't wait to get stuck into the Peninsular Wars properly, so many great battles to write about. Thanks again Christopher, always appreciated.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom


      This is probably one of the best written of all your well written history articles. It is a tale from history that is worthy of a play by Shakespeare. It's got all the elements, family jealousies, ambitious unscrupulous tyrant etc. Part two should be very exciting. I'm looking forward to that.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks AnimalWrites, yes he really was, a deplorable, conniving bully with little man syndrome, and yes the Spanish did deserve better than a Royal Family ready to abandon them at the first sign of trouble. Thanks for stopping by.

    • AnimalWrites profile image

      AnimalWrites 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Thrilling stuff JKenny. Napoleon really was a duplicitous, conniving ...... and the Spanish Bourbon monarchs were a pair of chocolate teapots! The Spanish people deserved better and it was great that they decided to stand up for themselves. The general message seems to be very wary of little continental corporals with big ideas!

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanka ata, really appreciate you taking the time to visit. There'll be more to come for definite. Thanks very much.

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Great hub. Although the outcome is known you write the story in such a way that I can't help but read on, voted up and shared!

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Harals, yes the Spanish Royal Family seemed to live in a bubble of ignorance just like the deposed French Monarchy. But, yes things do become a lot more interesting from here.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Another great historical hub. Looking forward to Part 2. As I said earlier, this is an area I'm not that familiar with so I've learned a lot. The Spanish leaders seemed a rather incompetent lot, but it will be interesting what the people do.