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The Peninsular War


1808: The Start of the War - 


At the start of 1808, Napoleon was at the height of his power. He controlled a vast area of Europe which included a hugely expanded France, Northern Italy, and the Netherlands, whilst his armies had forced the Austrians, Russians and Prussians to seek peace. Britain had few allies that were still willing to defy the Emperor, whilst Napoleon’s Continental Blockade was beginning to starve her of trade.


Napoleon therefore had many reasons to be confident that the British would eventually sue for peace. It is generally agreed that all he needed to do is sit back and wait. However waiting was never in Napoleon’s nature. He was a restless man, and now looked for opportunities to accelerate the collapse of the British war effort.

To do this, Napoleon invaded Britain’s oldest ally, Portugal, and in the process began the Peninsular War. There was no indication that this would become a protracted six year conflict. In fact, Portugal, with its small 20,000 man army was conquered swiftly. The reason that this war backfired so spectacularly for Napoleon was his own ambition. Not content with having subjugated yet another nation to his control, he then turned on his own ally, Spain. As the Spanish army was weak, Napoleon did not envisage any problems in conquering her, but in May 1808 parts of the country rose in revolt against the prospect of French rule.

Spain map colour.jpg

The Iberian Peninsula

(Author's Collection)

Britain, which had been able to do little to stop the French occupation of Portugal, responded enthusiastically to Spanish pleas for help. Caricatures from the time demonstrated the excitement which gripped the nation at the news of the Spanish revolt, as artists praised British efforts to support the Spanish in their fight for liberty from the domineering French.

In July a force under a relatively unknown commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley, was sent to the Iberian Peninsula to help in the struggle. Wellesley’s campaign was brief but incredibly effective. British troops landed at Mondego Bay, north of Lisbon, in early August. By the end of the month, Portugal had been liberated, with the British defeating the French twice in the process – firstly in a large skirmish at Roliça (17th August), and then at the Battle of Vimeiro (21st August). However, in the moment of victory at Vimeiro, Wellesley was superseded by a general bringing reinforcements from Britain (Sir Hew Dalrymple). Dalrymple not only failed to follow up on Wellesley’s success by not pursuing the French, but then negotiated a lenient ceasefire with the French commander, in return for their surrender, known as the Convention of Cintra.

After the British public’s high hopes, which had been raised even higher by Wellesley’s success, the Convention of Cintra was seen as a huge disappointed. Under the terms of the agreement, the remnants of the French army, which had been pinned down in Lisbon, were transported home in British ships, with their weapons and personal items. This meant that the French were able to take much of their loot home with them, and, of course, could fight in future campaigns. The British government called an enquiry into the Convention, and sent out more reinforcements with another commander, General Sir John Moore, to lead the British troops in Portugal

In the meantime, a surprise Spanish victory over the French at the Battle of Bailen, in July, forced an entire French army to surrender, and uprisings across the country had forced the French to withdraw to the north of the country. Hopes in Britain soared as the public became convinced that British and Spanish forces would sweep the French aside and march on Paris. Meanwhile, in November, Napoleon travelled in person to Spain to take command of French forces in the country.


The Dos de Mayo Uprising

by Joacquin Sorolla

A devastating campaign followed, in which an experienced army, led by an inspirational military genius systematically routed the Spanish forces. By November Napoleon had reoccupied Madrid. The British, under Moore, were not caught up in this catastrophe, as their advance into Spain to support their allies had been delayed. Moore sought to strike at the French lines of communication in Northern Spain, but soon found himself facing a much larger French force which Napoleon sent to chase him out of the country. The British were forced to evacuate via town of Corunna, snatching glory from defeat by fighting off the French at the Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809. Although the French were defeated, this only bought the British time to embark. In the moment of victory, Moore was killed during the battle by a cannon ball.

The campaign of 1808 had seemed so full of promise just a few months before. As 1809 began, it appeared that much of that hope had vanished. The next few months would be crucial in deciding whether the Peninsular War would fade into insignificance – the person who determined that, was Sir Arthur Wellesley.


This section has been split into a series of different pages so that you can explore the campaign of 1808 in greater depth. Click the links to find out more.

The Origins of the War


The Spanish Revolt


The Vimeiro Campaign


The Battle of Corunna

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