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“This wretched war with Spain has
divided my forces, multiplied my efforts,
attacked my morality in Europe.
And yet,it was impossible to leave the
Peninsular exposed to the machinations of
the English and the intrigues of the Bourbons.”



We ended the last chapter by evoking a quarrel which had suddenly sprung up between members of the Spanish royal family, a quarrel which would indubitably be the cause of the violent rebellion which was to take place on 2 May, 1808, in Madrid before spreading to the rest of Spain and which would only end in 1814 with the return of Ferdinand VII on the Spanish throne.

In chapter 42, we saw the strange unfilial relationship which existed between Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias and heir to the Spanish throne and his extraordinary parents, Charles IV and the Queen, Maria-Louisa of Parma. Their point of discord was the royal favourite Godoy, who was conceited, eccentric and of dubious character, but who was also omnipotent and who seemed to have a gift for collecting enemies. He was hated by the masses and the nobility alike, not to mention Ferdinand. But the latter, who was cowardly and cunning did no more than brood resentfully over his secret ambitions.

For the time being.



But he was not waiting alone. Ferdinand who was weak and continuously complaining was surrounded by a group of schemers who judged that his cowardliness would allow them to manoeuvre him exactly as they wished to their advantage. The plotters' strategy was simple. They would organise a riot in Madrid to scare the King and thus force him to get rid of Godoy. Ferdinand would then hold the reins and govern, but under his father's control.

Unfortunately for them, Godoy got wind of the threat and as he knew he was protected by the King who never called him anything but “My friend Manuel”, and by the Queen who bestowed her not very enviable favours upon him, the favourite had the prince arrested in his private apartments in the Palace of El Escorial, and kept him prisoner to have him judged for plotting against the crown and his parents.

The crestfallen heir hardly offered any resistance and soon revealed the names of his accomplices when he was threatened and questioned by his parents. Thereupon, Godoy lost no time in interceding in their favour with the King, as this gave him the opportunity of appearing to be noble and generous.

For the royal favourite it was a stroke of luck as it enabled him to discredit Ferdinand, who was popular, by showing the common people that someone who denounced those who had helped him at the first sign of danger could not be trusted.

But Godoy's enemies began to fear - and not without reason – that if the heir to the throne was eliminated he would seize the crown for himself.

As for Charles IV when he discovered the plot which his son and his accomplices had hatched, he indignantly wrote to Napoleon to reveal the details of the scheme, informing him of his irritation against his “perverted son” and asking him for “help in revoking the law which called Ferdinand to the throne”.

Things would probably not have gone any further than a simple – but undeniably sordid – family quarrel, if at the same time Ferdinand had not also seized his pen to write to Napoleon, but naturally with a very different version of the events.

In his letter he described himself as a victim of the hatred of a despicable and completely unscrupulous schemer into whose hands his parents - who were blinded by their attachment to Godoy – had placed him, and he implored for the protection of “the French Emperor”.

For good measure, he had even gone so far as to solicit “the honour of marrying a princess of his illustrious family” and, most obligingly, he had left the choice of the chosen candidate to Napoleon. Thus, the lamentable royal family of Spain had just asked Napoleon to intervene in their family affairs. And in other terms, this signified that they were inviting him to intervene in the affairs of the kingdom.



During this time the French army continued to head for Spain, gradually infiltrating the country and taking several major Spanish strongholds such as Figueras, Barcelona, Pamplona, San Sebastian … by surprise – which was not particularly glorious especially at the time.

French troops as they crossed Spain commanded by Murat, who had been
named Lieutenant General to Napoleon for the occasion. The troops
encountered no animosity or hostility on their way.

This military invasion, which nothing apparently seemed to justify, was beginning to alarm the country. Was all this part of a French scheme that consisted in annexing the country to turn it into a sort of province of the French Empire?

But the Spanish Army which only had some thirty thousand men under arms was in no position to resist.

As for Godoy, if in all this confusion he needed further proof of his lack of popularity, the verdict which was rendered after the judgement of Ferdinand's accomplices in his “putsch” must have been enough to enlighten him. To the general satisfaction of both the lower classes and the aristocracy who hated Godoy and who now also blamed him for the irruption of foreign troops on Spanish soil, the accused had all been acquitted despite the pressure which had been exerted by Charles IV and the Queen.

And Godoy had every reason to be alarmed as since the affair of El Escorial the mob in Madrid was starting to get more and more excited. He was worried as he knew that at the first riot he would inevitably be torn to pieces by the rabble. He therefore submitted a plan to Charles IV and the Queen which they accepted without any hesitation. This plan consisted in following the example of the Bragance and fleeing to the Spanish colonies in South America.

An idea which also enchanted Napoleon as it meant that a vacant throne presented itself to France. He was convinced that in the same way as the French had detached themselves from the French monarch, Louis XVI, when he left secretly with his family in an attempt to escape from the country in June, 1791, during the French Revolution, the Spaniards would detach themselves from their monarchs after their departure.

What Napoleon ignored - among a great many other things about Spain - was that whatever the name of their sovereign, the Spaniards were fiercely attached to their monarchy. And this made all the difference.

To put everyone on a false scent and not arouse any suspicion, the distinctly eccentric royal family decided that they would first leave for their residence at Aranjuez, some forty kilometres from Madrid, before embarking in the port of Cadiz. Accompanied, of course, by the “Bull” (as Napoleon called him), that is to say the royal favourite, Godoy.



But the servants – amongst whom were several spies paid by Ferdinand – were either unable or deliberately refused to hide the preparations for their departure and this alarmed the common people. This upheaval could mean one thing only: “that scoundrel of a Godoy” was preparing to leave for South America with their sovereigns, and taking with him his hoard of gold which he was going to put out of harm's way.

So to stop them from leaving a mob left Madrid for Aranjuez where they stormed the royal residence. A rebellion broke out.

Charles IV who was panic-stricken yielded and started by revoking his orders for their departure and then promised to remove Godoy from high office and deprive him of all his privileges.

But these measures were not enough to calm the people's anger.

A mob then headed for the residence of the favourite which they looted. And they searched for Godoy everywhere. In vain. Finally, after spending two days hiding in a recess in the attic, he was discovered after he had been betrayed by one of his servants whom he had asked for a glass of water as he was dying of thirst.

An officer reported that Godoy “was in a state which would have aroused the compassion of his greatest enemies, his face was covered in blood and he so weak from the blood flowing from his thigh that he was unable to stand on his feet.”

In the hands of the lawless mob whose violence had not yet reached its paroxysm, Godoy's life hung by a thread.

So on 19 March 1808, to save the life of his “friend Manuel” and his wife's lover, Charles IV who feared also for his own life, resigned himself to abdicating in favour of his “beloved son, the Prince of the Asturias ”.

In his letter of abdication he evoked his “physical disability which no longer enabled him to assume the heavy burden of governing [his] kingdom…”

When the news was announced, the entire country literally exploded with joy.



When Murat was informed of the events in Madrid he hesitated and did not know which course of action to take

Murat, who on 20 February had been appointed commander-in-chief of all the French troops in Spain with the official title of “Lieutenant General of the Emperor”, learned the news as he was travelling to Madrid by short stages, as Napoleon had ordered. He entered into Madrid on the 23rd. Upon his arrival he was well received by the population who thought he had come bringing the support of the great French Emperor to the Prince of the Asturias, who had just become Ferdinand VII.

But Murat's orders did not cover this new and unexpected turn of events. And without precise orders, the Grand Duke of Berg who was far from tactful and certainly not cut out to be a diplomat decided that the best course of action was simply to ignore the new King of Spain and behaved exactly as if the “legitimate” sovereign had never abdicated - at least until Napoleon informed him of his decision.

Murat's attitude poured balm into wounded heart of Charles IV, who soon imagined that he was about to recover his crown which he considered he had been forced to give up under constraint – and not without reason.

As for Ferdinand, he only had one course of action left open to him now. To use his influence and plead his cause directly with Napoleon - who pretexting a visit to the departments in the South of France had left the Chateau de Saint-Cloud on 2 April for Bayonne – and convince him of the legitimacy of his brand new crown.



Upon hearing that Ferdinand was leaving to meet Napoleon, Charles IV and Maria-Louisa were both alarmed and dismayed. Their wicked son was obviously going to slander them and compromise their reputation in the estimation of the French Emperor. And then the Spanish crown which had once belonged to Philip II would be lost forever.

Their request to leave was granted, and they too set off after having been assured that Godoy would be allowed to join them.

Before his departure from Madrid it had been agreed between Ferdinand and Murat that the former was to meet Napoleon on Spanish soil.

But at Burgos ? No one.

At Vitoria ? There was still no Napoleon.

And instead of their meeting taking place in Spain, it finally took place at Bayonne, chief-town of the French department then known as the Basses-Pyrénées (now called the Pyrénées-Atlantiques), situated 897 kilometres from Paris (distance of the time).

General view of the port of Bayonne at the beginning of the 19th century.
The events which took place here led to the Peninsular War

But Ferdinand's hopes were soon dashed. Savary, by order of Napoleon informed him that – and after all both the parents and son had asked the Emperor to settle their dispute –the latter refused to recognise anyone other than Charles IV as king of Spain. But it was also stipulated that if he renounced the crown, Ferdinand would receive the kingdom of Etruria in exchange.

He refused.



When the parents and son met face to face in the presence of Napoleon, there was an extremely unpleasant and violent scene which can only be described as sordid, and during which it was reported that Charles IV lifted his cane to strike his son.

After having observed the horror of their debasement in all its starkness, Napoleon could only come to one conclusion. These Bourbons were so degenerate that they were unworthy of ruling Spain.

Napoleon expressed his opinion on Ferdinand in the following terms in this letter he addressed to Talleyrand. No longer the Minister of External Affaires, the Prince de Bénévent was now merely a counsellor, but an extremely dangerous counsellor:

“He is so stupid that I cannot get a word out of him. No matter what you say to him, he never answers, and whether you rebuke him or pay him compliments his expression never changes. One look at him is enough to judge his character which can be depicted in just one word: cunning.”

This print of the time shows the stormy discussion between the Spanish
sovereigns and Ferdinand in Napoleon's presence. The inset
represents the Spanish ecclesiastic, Escoïquiz, who advised Ferdinand to go
to Bayonne to ask Napoleon to arbitrate his dispute with his parents

If Napoleon had consented to leave Ferdinand who was weak and sly on the Spanish throne, he would soon have been a puppet in the hands of the English government and would have been a permanent menace to the Continental Blockade.

It was a risk he could not afford to take.



We regret to have to say so on this website, but on this occasion Napoleon's conduct was unworthy of a man of his stature as notwithstanding the aversion and contempt we may feel for the “victims”, what occurred cannot be described as anything but an ambush. This behaviour would, however, have been perfectly in keeping with the ordinary conduct of English politicians of that time – a comparison which is hardly flattering for the Emperor!

But just as in the early 1930s everything would have been good - and justified – to annihilate Nazi Germany, for Napoleon all means were good – and justified – to annihilate England which at the time had no scruple about sending tens of thousands of men to be massacred so that English commerce could predominate on the Continent.

But the fact remains that the episode at Bayonne was literally speaking an ambush, and that was exactly how the Spaniards perceived it.

The consequence of this act, which Napoleon's detractors have exploited ever since, has a name which is famous and which has gone down in history: “2 May”.



To be continued…