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© 2019 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.

See the Conquering Hero Comes: Caricatures and the Peninsular War

August 12, 2017

Anniversaries are becoming a bit of a theme in this blog!. After marking the anniversaries of Salamanca and Waterloo, today is the 205th anniversary of the liberation of Madrid. This was a hugely important propaganda victory for the allies, and one which they exploited to the hilt. I want to examine some caricatures that were produced to mark the event, and explore what they tell us about popular attitudes to the war.


The first point to make about caricatures is that they aren’t quite the same as cartoons. Modern day satirical cartoons in newspapers are heavily influenced by the newspaper’s agenda. Although caricatures were satirical, they were usually sold independently by the artists who created them. There were specific shops where people could go to see and purchase the latest caricatures, and as a result, they had to be designed in a way that would appeal to people enough for them to want to buy a copy. This means that they are quite good reflections of popular opinion at the time.


The other thing that I like about caricatures is that they were supposed to appeal to the masses. There were designed to be seen in all kinds of public places, from barber shops and pubs, to brothels and even public lavatories. By the early nineteenth century selling these ‘prints’ (cartoons) was becoming big business, and entrepreneurs were experimenting with different techniques to produce them as cheaply as possible. This therefore means that caricatures weren’t just reflecting the attitude of the wealthy classes, but also the lower ones, as they had to appeal to a mass market.


The liberation of Madrid led to the creation of two caricatures. This, clearly, isn’t very many. Events closer to home, especially royal and political scandals, were the focus of far more prints. When the mistress of the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York, was accused of taking bribes in return for positions in the army, a staggering 120 caricatures were produced on the topic. Straight away then, it is clear that the Peninsular War wasn’t an all-consuming interest for people back home.


Both of the caricatures on Madrid were created by the same artist, Charles Williams, in September 1812. For copyright reasons I can’t show the caricatures here, so I have included links to the different cartoons.






See the Conquering Hero Comes depicted Wellington riding into Madrid to the joy and adulation of the city’s inhabitants, whilst in the background the French are being chased out of the city by women armed with brooms. This was the first print since 1808 to have acknowledged any involvement of the Spanish in the Peninsular War. However, the inclusion of the feisty, broom-wielding Señoras is only there to ridicule the French soldiers, clearly showing that they were weak and cowardly foes. This print therefore has two key messages: 1) Wellington is a great hero who everyone adores and worships. 2) The French are a bit pathetic. Neither of these themes reveals anything new or surprising. (I mean about British attitudes – I’m saying that the French actually are wimps. Although there have been comments across history about them being ‘Cheese eating surrender monkeys’….). Anyhow, back to caricatures: we would expect the public to have that kind of attitude considering that Britain had been almost constantly at war with France for 20 years, and Wellington had been winning battles in Spain and Portugal since 1808.


However, the second of Williams’s prints reveals much more about popular attitudes towards the Duke of Wellington at the time. In King Joey taking leave of his capital, Wellington gallops into Madrid chasing Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, who is trying to run off with all the Spanish gold in a ‘swag’ style sack. Wellington proclaims: ‘Thus shall the hand of Wellington arrest all sacrilegious, upstart, Tyrannic Monarchs, and restore to the injured their rights and Lawfull Sovereign!’


The language here is very interesting. The themes of Britain defending liberty, defeating tyranny, and stopping the ungodly give an interesting view of how the British perceived their actions in Spain. Considering that these prints were supposed to appeal to the masses, it does raise the interesting question of how far these prints reflected popular opinion, or whether they were supposed to influence it.


Any thoughts? Join the debate in the Forum.


Interested in learning more about caricatures? Try the following links.


To see examples of caricatures from the period, search the British Museum catalogue: http://www.britishmuseum.org


For research on caricatures:

Dorothy M. George, English Political Caricature 1793-1832 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959)

Z. White, ‘From Cintra to Salamanca: Shifting Popular Perceptions of the War in the Iberian Peninsular, 1808-1812’, British Journal of Military History, Volume 1, Number 3, pages 60-79


For Spanish readers:

Jesusa Vega, ‘La caricatura política, la guerra y la imagen de España’, in Hacia 1812, desde el siglo Ilustrado: Actas del V  Congreso Internacional de la Sociedad Española de Estudios del Siglo  XVIII, edited by F. Durán-López (Gijón, Ediciones Trea, 2013) pp. 543-590

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