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The Peninsular War



The Peninsular War had its origins on a raft, in a river. In June 1807 Napoleon met with Russian Tsar Alexander I on the River Tilsit, to negotiate a peace settlement in the wake of his overwhelmingly successful Friedland campaign.


In the months that followed Napoleon sought to bring his last remaining enemy, Britain, to the negotiating table. Following British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon knew that an invasion of Britain was impossible. He therefore tried to starve the country of trade, forcing the government to negotiate to prevent the economy collapsing – a strategy which Napoleon called ‘the continental system’.

Although unpopular in many countries, Napoleon’s dominance of Europe enabled him to dictate this economic policy to almost the entire continent. In July 1907 he turned his attention to Portugal, demanding that the Portuguese close their ports to British ships, seize the assets of Britons living in the country, and declare war on Britain. Portugal’s refusal to comply and 25,000 veteran French troops under Marshal Junot which the Spanish had allowed to amass on the Spanish-Portuguese border, invaded the country on 18th October.


King Charles IV of Spain

By Francisco Goya


Under the Treaty of Fontainbleau, the country was to be split in 3, part under French occupation, part as a personal kingdom to Godoy (Spain’s deeply unpopular first minister), and part theoretically a free state, but subservient to Napoleon. Conquering Portugal proved relatively simple, as Portugal’s army, whilst amounting to 40,000 men on paper could only muster 20,000 in reality. To Napoleon’s fury the Portugal’s royal family escaped to the Portuguese colony of Brazil under escort by the Royal Navy, taking with them their crown jewels, silver and a huge part of the country’s nobility.


However, Portugual only represented the first phase of Napoleon’s ‘Iberian adventure’, as in the following months he turned his attention to adding the lands of his ally, Spain, to the list of nations under his control. In an extraordinary sequence of events, Napoleon pushed more troops into Spain, occupying Pamplona and Barcelona in February 1808, before sending Murat to occupy Madrid in March.

An uprising at Aranjuez against the government’s pro-French stance at Aranjuez forced King Charles IV to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand VII. Napoleon seized upon the rift between the two as a retext to summon both to Bayonne in May and demand that they renounce their claims to the throne and give him the crown.


Charles and Ferdinand agreed to Napoleon’s on 5th May, after receiving assurances that Spain’s territorial and religious integrity would not be touched, though in truth they had little choice. Napoleon appeared to have stolen the Spanish Crown, but already the situation was unravelling.


Up Next: Spanish Revolt: The Dos de Mayo and Battle of Bailen


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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)


Charles Oman, A History of the Penisular War: Volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902)

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