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The Peninsular War


The Dos de Mayo Uprising & Battle of Bailen

Even before Charles and Ferdinand had agreed to Napoleon’s demands at Bayonne, Spain was exploding into unrest. On 2nd May 1808, the famous Dos de Mayo uprising occurred. It is too simplistic to describe this event and the uprisings which occurred across Spain over the following months as simply being a demonstration of Spanish patriotism. The Spanish people had many reasons for discontent: class struggles, food shortages and a collapse in overseas trade brought about by supporting France’s war with Britain.


Nonetheless, rumours that the last of the Spanish royal family were being taken to Bayonne drew crowds onto the streets of Madrid in protest, and the French commander, Murat, mobilising the nearest French troops, allowed his men to fire to disperse the crowd. The situation rapidly escalated as furious Spaniards took up whatever weapons they could find and turned on the French. They stood little chance against the highly trained French soldiers, and the streets were quickly cleared of insurgent Spaniards. Goya depicted a famous scene of the executions of some of the protestors at dawn the following morning. In all, around 200 Spaniards were killed in the fighting, with another 300 estimated to have been executed.


General Pierre Dupont

Anonymous - wikimediacommons

News of the Dos de Mayo uprising electrified many across the country. It was rapidly seized upon as an example of heroic patriotic fervour against the French occupiers, and the revolt spread. In many areas, it was relatively easy to denounce the government, as the majority of the 90,000 French troops in the country were place along the lines of communication between Madrid and France. Many local politicians therefore took the opportunity to advance their own agendas, setting up their own regional governments under a veil of anti-French rhetoric.


Napoleon, meanwhile, was seeking to install one of his siblings on the Spanish throne. His younger brother Jerome refused, as he had only recently been made King of Westphalia, in Germany, so Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph, who had previously been made King of Naples was appointed. By the end of May, however, the news of Ferdinand’s abdication had produced revolts across the country.

Outnumbered by the 114,000 man Spanish standing army, not to mention the thousands who formed militias of their own, the French were now placed on the back foot in Spain. Although there were some successes for the French, such as Dupont’s capture of Cordoba, which was subsequently sacked, the French experienced a huge setback at the Battle of Bailen in July. After being beaten by the Spanish, General Dupont surrendered his entire 18,000 strong army and 36 guns. It was a huge humiliation for the French, and their worst defeat since 1793.

Lacking strong leadership from King Joseph, who had evacuated the capital and fled to Burgos after less than a fortnight on the throne, the French forces in Spain began to strategically withdraw behind the Ebro. Napoleon was furious, and began laying plans for the reconquest of Spain. In the meantime, the Spanish celebrated, heaping scorn on the Emperor and puppet King Joseph. As British troops descended on Portugal in August, it looked as though the Peninsular War might well be over by Christmas.


Up Next: Vimeiro and Cintra: The British liberation of Portugal


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Interested in Learning More?

Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London: Penguin, 2015)

Robert Harvey, War of Wars: The Epic Struggle between Britain and France, 1789-1815 (London: Constable, 2007)

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