Spain: The Lightning Rod that Attracted the Thunderbolt I


After consulting with his artillery commander, Alexander Dickson, Lieut-Gen Sir Thomas Graham chose to open fire on the coupure’s inner wall, despite risk of killing many British soldiers who lay so close under the barrier. When the British heavy guns first fired over their heads, the survivors of the attack began to panic. But, when the smoke cleared, they noticed that the big guns had wrecked most of the inner wall. With a yell, they charged, reached the top of the breach and spilled into the city. At the sight of their defence lines broken, the French retreated to the fortress on the hill of Urgull and by midday the besiegers had taken over the town. On inspection it was discovered that not a single shot had fallen short into the allied troops, even though they were fired from 600–800 yards (550–730 m) for 20 minutes and that, aided by an explosion of ready grenades and live shells on the wall, few defenders survived uninjured. 700 French were captured in the town which by now was in flames



What a somber and tortuous affair was Spain! Napoleon’s detractors present it, along with the coming war with Russia, as the incontestable proof of his megalomania. One must be cautious about such simplistic judgments. This extremely complex question merits further study.

At the outset, the war in Spain reflected underlying tensions that were awaiting the right moment to erupt.

After Tilsit, Napoleon waited for the next action of Britain, pushed out of Northern Europe, rejected by Portugal, and contained in Italy. London fell back on the “soft underbelly” of Spain to relight the fire. It was vital for France to prevent the opening of a new front at its rear.

In 1808, Spain was allied with France, with whom it had shared the disaster of Trafalgar. It had just expelled the British from Buenos Aires and had provided a military contingent, under the command of General La Romana, to support the French army in Germany. Quite recently, Spain had cooperated loyally with France in the military expedition to Portugal intended to expel the first British bridgehead there. In theory, therefore, everything was well in the best of all possible worlds. All that should have been necessary to ensure the Spanish flank guard would be to maintain the alliance.

In reality, the situation was far different. The Spanish alliance presented all the signs of a disquieting fragility.

First, there was proof that the court of Madrid delighted in duplicity and double-dealing. During his visit to Potsdam in 1806, Napoleon happened by chance upon correspondence between King Charles IV of Spain and the king of Prussia, correspondence that had been forgotten when Frederick William fled in haste. In his letter, the king of Spain offered to attack Napoleon in the back while he was involved with Prussia. Crown Prince Ferdinand, for his part, pretended to be a Francophile while his correspondence overflowed with hatred for France and the French. His entourage included a large number of anti-French aristocrats and clergymen, in particular his tutor, Canon EscoVquiz.

In addition, these Bourbons of Spain, descendants of Louis XIV, exhibited the signs of advanced degeneracy, of which nothing was said for the sake of Christian charity. The painter Goya had no such scruples in his portraits of them.

The members of the royal family were on poor terms with each other. The king was a vaudeville character, Queen Maria-Louisa was a shrew subject to excessive mood swings, and the queen’s favorite and prime minister, Godoy, christened the “Prince of Peace,” formed a ménage a trois. The eldest son Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias, was as aware of this situation as the rest of the country. Ferdinand could not tolerate the situation, feeling contempt for his parents and hatred for Godoy, who more than reciprocated the sentiment.

The family quarrel became more venomous in the fall of 1807, and the protagonists appealed to the emperor to arbitrate their differences. The king accused his son of plotting to overthrow him and to murder his mother. He asked that Napoleon should “Aid me with his wisdom and counsel.” The crown prince, the personification of drabness, implored the emperor to take him under his wing and protect him from Godoy, whom he suspected of wishing to dispossess him. He went so far as to seek a marriage with a Bonaparte princess. Napoleon apparently made no reply to this repugnant offer. But he sent his chamberlain, de Tournon, to the Spanish court to calm things down and report on the situation.

The Franco-Spanish alliance of October 1807 and the conquest of Portugal muted the family quarrel for a time.

What was the attitude of the Spanish population? The presence of the French army in transit to Portugal was very well received. The Spanish people, principal actor in the play that was about to unfold, were less evolved than other European peoples. They had remained under the stifling influence of a clergy not yet completely freed of the “Torquemadian” fundamentalism of the Inquisition. In the short term, the Spanish opinion wanted France to put an end to the unacceptable situation of the royal family. It pitied the king and hated the queen and Godoy. For want of anyone better, it tended to the side of the Prince of the Asturias.

Meanwhile, Napoleon learned that Britain was preparing for a military return to the Iberian Peninsula. London hurried, believing that it could seize the occasion of a palace revolution that seemed imminent in Madrid. This information was no surprise, but it did confirm the necessity to find a quick solution to the imbroglio of the Spanish dynasty.

At this point in the matter, the question was not whether to act in Spain but rather how to act, in accordance with the evolving situation but without waiting too long.

Talleyrand proved to be a very radical advisor. Arguing for a sort of right of national preemption, he urged Napoleon to dethrone these pitiful Bourbons of Spain, orphan descendants of the great Louis XIV. In his eyes, their replacement by a new dynasty stemming from the Imperial family was the sole solution to keep Spain securely. This expedient advice, coming from a usually moderate expert, astonished Napoleon and aroused a horrible suspicion. Having been replaced as foreign minister by Champagny, was Talleyrand seeking revenge by advocating the worst possible policy?

Meanwhile, Napoleon took a preventive military measure. He named Murat his lieutenant general in Spain, at the head of an army corps located north of the capital, Madrid. It is noteworthy that the French Army was welcomed by a population not yet angry against it. At the same time, Admiral Rosily’s squadron anchored at Cadiz. Permitted under the Franco-Spanish accords of October with regard to Portugal, this decision offered the advantage of locating combat power to be deployed rapidly in the country, because the British were clearly up to something.

But events came to a crisis. On March 18 and 19, supporters of Ferdinand fomented riots in Aranjuez. Godoy was imprisoned, and owed his life to the personal intervention of Ferdinand. Charles IV abdicated “in favor of my well-beloved son, the Prince of the Asturias.” This prince was proclaimed king of Spain with the title Ferdinand VII. Without the least modesty, the dethroned queen wrote to Murat to ask “that he obtain from the Emperor sufficient so that the king my husband, the Prince of Peace, and I should live all three together in a place suitable for our health, without authority or intrigues.”

At this critical juncture, a political head was needed on the scene, capable of making the appropriate decisions immediately. Murat took it upon himself to occupy Madrid on March 23, 1808, and prepared to put the former king back on his throne. What a farce! Charles IV wrote to Napoleon,

I was forced to abdicate. However, I am so full of confidence in the genius of the great man who has always shown himself to be my friend that I have decided to conform completely to whatever this great man may decide about my fate and that of the queen and the Prince of Peace. I protest to Your Majesty against the events of Aranjuez and against my abdication. I place myself with complete confidence at the heart and friendship of Your Majesty.

It is unclear whether he was completely sincere, but one thing is apparent: Charles IV reneged on his abdication, obtained by constraint, and he left it entirely up to Napoleon to resolve the Spanish problem.

At this stage, the emperor really did not see how he should proceed. Had Murat not interfered, there would not now be two kings in Spain, and he would have been able to arrange matters with the new one. He was tempted simply to abandon Charles IV, but Talleyrand’s advice continued to trouble him. To achieve his objectives, he considered transferring the throne to a Bonaparte. He thought first of Louis, who arrogantly refused. Joseph showed himself more cooperative, however. In addition, the report of the investigation Napoleon had ordered demonstrated the confirmed Francophobia of the new king and especially of his entourage.

Napoleon needed more time to consider the problem. Just as in preparing for a battle, he decided to inform himself more by arranging a confrontation between the protagonists at Bayonne. He directed Savary to persuade Ferdinand VII to cooperate. That should not have been difficult, considering the prince had recently requested the emperor’s assistance.

Before his departure from Paris, Napoleon wrote a letter to Murat, whom he reproached and gave instructions to avoid aggravating the situation by further intemperate initiatives. He began to doubt the loyalty of the Grand Duke of Berg, who was married to his sister Caroline.

Many mistakes could have been avoided if Murat had taken the time to read this letter carefully. Let us consider these extracts that show the foresight and the wait-and-see policy of Napoleon at that date:

I fear that you have deceived me and perhaps yourself about the situation in Spain. The actions of March 23 have greatly complicated matters. I am greatly perplexed. Do not believe that you are attacking a disarmed nation or that you have only to parade your troops to force Spain to submit…. The Spaniards are full of energy. You are dealing with a new people who have all the courage and enthusiasm of men who have never experienced political passions before. The aristocracy and the clergy are the masters in Spain. If they fear the loss of their privileges and their existence, they may raise up the masses against us and prolong the war eternally. At the moment, I have Spanish supporters, but if I appear as a conqueror I will have none….

It is never useful to render oneself odious or to arouse hatred. Spain has more than 100,000 men under arms, which is more than enough to support a war in the interior…. England will not miss this opportunity to multiply our difficulties. It is sending daily instructions to the forces it maintains off the coasts of Portugal and the Mediterranean. Britain is recruiting Sicilians and Portuguese…

What are the best measures to take? Should I come to Madrid? Should I exercise a great protectorate and choose between father and son? It appears difficult to put Charles IV back into power: his government and his favorite are so unpopular that they would not last three months. Ferdinand is an enemy of France, and that is why he was made king. Placing him on the throne serves the factions that for 25 years have sought the destruction of France. A family alliance would be a weak reed….

I think that we must not do anything rash…. I do not approve of the party that urged Your Imperial Highness to act precipitately in Madrid. The army must remain at least ten leagues from the capital. By disturbing the Spanish, your entry into Madrid had greatly aided Ferdinand. I have sent Savary to visit the new king and determine the situation…. I will eventually advise you as to which party to support. In the meanwhile, this is what I judge appropriate to prescribe to you. You will commit me to meet Ferdinand only if you judge that the situation is such that I must recognize him as King of Spain…. You will act in such a way that the Spaniards will have no idea which party I will support. That should not be difficult for you, because I don’t know myself. You will let the nobility and the clergy understand that, if France must intervene in Spanish affairs, their privileges and immunities will be respected….

You will demonstrate to them the advantages they would gain from a political regeneration…. Do not take any abrupt actions…. I will bear your personal interests in mind, so you need not do so…. Let no personal project occupy you or control your conduct: that would be prejudicial to me and even more so to you…. I order that the most severe discipline must be maintained: no leniency even for the smallest faults. We must show the greatest respect for the inhabitants, and especially for the churches and convents. The army will avoid all contact with Spanish Army units…. Not a shot must be fired on either side…. If war commences, you will be lost. The destiny of Spain must be decided by politics and negotiation….”

This letter perfectly summarized Napoleon’s uncertainty when he left for Bayonne:

(1) He had not yet decided anything because he did not yet see his way clear in the Spanish imbroglio. He had not prepared a trap, as is often (and foolishly) alleged. The two sides had solicited his arbitration—the dethroned king to obtain revenge and the new one to be recognized. Why would he have rejected all possibility of arranging the matter?

(2) He sought a compromise that would satisfy both French national security and the Spanish royal quarrel, with the approval of the Spanish population. He wished above all to avoid war. In any case, he had no intention of conquest.

(3) He did not conceal from Murat that the latter’s conduct had already compromised the possibility of a solution and that he was not deceived by the marshal’s tricks. Murat was not to dream of the Spanish throne for himself!

Napoleon left Paris on April 2, 1808, and arrived at the chateau of Marracq, in Bayonne, on April 20. There he received Ferdinand and his reduced court. Upon approaching France, the pseudo-king had become reluctant to enter that country. At Vitoria, his two principal counselors, Canon Escoïquez (who was also his confessor) and his First Gentleman, Cevallos, advised him not to go any farther, despite the assurances of Savary, who quickly reported to Bayonne. Savary returned to Ferdinand with the following letter from the emperor, which convinced the young king to complete his journey: “I say to Your Highness, to the Spanish people, and to the entire world, that if the abdication of King Charles was a voluntary act, if he was not forced to it by the insurrection and riots of Aranjuez, he will make no difficulty in accepting it, and I will recognize Your Royal Highness as King of Spain. I therefore wish to discuss this topic with you….” Napoleon’s position had not changed: he wished to arbitrate the Spanish royal conflict that had been submitted to him by the interested parties.

At their first meeting, Ferdinand made a terrible impression on the emperor. The man inspired revulsion. The security of France and the well-being of Spain could not be based on such a man. He was obviously a puppet in the hands of a faction of the nobility and the clergy. As the future would confirm, his only influence lay in the disgust inspired in the Spanish nation by his parents. Was Napoleon condemned to choose between cholera and the plague?

That same evening, Napoleon had Savary deliver a deliberately provocative proposal to Ferdinand, a proposal whose purpose was to place a very high bar for the coming negotiations: the renunciation of his crown in favor of his father, in exchange for the modest crown of Etruria. Ferdinand and his counselors loudly expressed their indignation. This was the starting point for substantive discussions.

Negotiations opened under these conditions while waiting for the other party. Escoïquez ardently defended his master’s position. In return for his recognition as king, Ferdinand promised a government “completely devoted to Napoleon.” That would be the best solution. But what assurance did Napoleon have that Ferdinand would fulfill his promises, knowing the hostile sentiments of the prince and his advisors toward France in general and the emperor in particular? When Napoleon did not respond, Escoïquez went so far as to promise that Spain would place one of its northern provinces in French hands as a guarantee of its loyalty.

In order to decide, Napoleon next had to learn the attitude of the other protagonist, Charles IV.

The family reunion that took place on April 30 avoided becoming a fistfight. It was difficult to decide which spectacle was more painful: that of the father hugging his son while calling him by all his names, or his mother outbidding the king. And all this in the presence of Godoy, her paralyzed lover.

Charles IV’s purpose and attitude convinced Napoleon that the only thing that really mattered to the king was to deny the Spanish throne to his son. Charles formalized that position in a letter to the Prince of the Asturias on May 2, in which he stated that Ferdinand’s crimes would disqualify him from succeeding to the throne and that “Spain may no longer be saved except by the Emperor.”

Determined in his mind but continuing to negotiate with Escoïquez, the emperor inclined somewhat toward the replacement of Ferdinand by Joseph Bonaparte, recalled from Naples where Murat had replaced him. Yet, nothing was officially decided. Something still held him back. The affair would come to a brutal crisis on May 5.


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