Volume II

“Vanquished nations only become
subjects to a conquering power
by a combination of politics and severity,
and by their integration in the army.
All these things were missing in Spain.”
(Napoleon analysing the causes of the Spanish disaster)

On 17 April Napoleon left the Governor’s residence, which the officials of the town of Bayonne had put at his disposal (see our last chapter), to take up residence in the little castle of Marracq (or Marrac), just outside the town on the road to Biarritz.

He was serene as he quite sincerely thought that the question of Spain – apart from a few details – was about to be definitely settled. Thus, on 25 April 1808, he wrote to Talleyrand:

“Unless I am mistaken, the tragedy is in its fifth act: we shall soon see the ending.”

He was in for a rude shock, however, as the outcome of future events would be very different from what he had anticipated.

On 5 May, at around 2 p.m. as he was out riding with Savary on the road that leads to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, he saw a courier ride up bearing a message. Dated in Madrid, it informed him of what had happened three days earlier in the Spanish capital…


The welcome Murat had received upon his arrival in Madrid from the inhabitants who were unaware of French plans had gone to his head. And since then he was so full of self-complacency that it warped his judgement which was far from sound, anyway, even in the best of circumstances. And he, too, was convinced that everything had gone well and that matters were settled:

“Your Majesty may take my word for it, nothing will happen in Madrid”, he wrote confidently to the Emperor on 12 April.

Two days later, he was just as serene:

“Everything is still very calm”.

And on 1 May, whereas all the other witnesses testify on that same day, which was market day in Madrid, that the town was in a state of perturbation and that unrest had reached a pitch:

“Everything is over in Spain.”

As we shall soon see.

Unbeknown to Napoleon and Murat, Ferdinand VII who Napoleon had described as “cunning” in a letter he addressed to Talleyrand – was, in spite of all his feigned submissiveness, in spite of his semblance of humility, secretly sending emissaries to Madrid where they were spreading the most alarming rumours. He, Ferdinand, heir to the Spanish throne was being ill-treated, and it was murmured that Napoleon was even thinking of assassinating the Spanish Bourbons.


In Madrid rumours of this kind were like a wick attached to a barrel of gunpowder. Only the detonator was missing.

Napoleon had ordered Murat to send the infants, Francis and Maria-Luisa, who were still in the Spanish capital off to Madrid.

Already in a state of great agitation after the false rumours which had been spread by Ferdinand’s envoys and suspicious as to the real reasons behind their new sovereign’s departure for Bayonne, the inhabitants of Madrid were on their guard.

On 2 May, which was a Monday, at around 8 a.m., two carriages drew up in front of the Royal Palace where the two infantes resided.

The crowd immediately rushed forward and cut the horses’ reins to immobilize the coaches.

At that moment, a French officer appeared to see what was going on. He was wearing his full-dress uniform white pelisse and scarlet trousers and his name was Auguste Lagrange, aide-de-camp to Murat. Just as the infantes were about to step out of the palace, he stepped forward to greet them and salute.

Reports stated that when the crowd saw the infante Francis appear, there were cries of:

“To arms! They are kidnapping the infante!”


This was immediately followed by furious cries directed against the aide-de-camp:
“Kill him! Kill him!”

Lagrange barely had time to salute before the crowd surged forward to attack him, and he would very probably have been massacred if a piquet of grenadiers had not rushed to his rescue and managed to save him in the nick of time.


Thereupon, shots were fired from amongst the rioters and the French soldiers fired back. Lagrange, who was covered in blood, hastened to report to Murat to inform him of the serious events he had been involved in which had just taken place.

Meanwhile, in front of the palace anger was growing and, with it, hate. Cries of “Death to the French” were heard.

The rioters armed themselves with axes, knives, clubs, iron bars…

And at that moment, woe betide any French soldier who was isolated!

One inoffensive corporal, for instance, who had been ordered to bear a message, had his throat cut by a throng who had literally gone mad after the monks had instigated them to murder. Elsewhere, a sick soldier who had been left in a hospital met the same fate. Still elsewhere, men who formed a fatigue party and who had been sent out for supplies were massacred down to the last man…

These murders were easy as the soldiers who were in different quarters of the town were taken unawares and had, as yet, received no precise instructions as to how to react to the situation. Two Spanish ministers, Arenza and O’Farril risked their lives in attempting to put an end to the massacres. And it was almost by miracle that they, too, managed to escape from the murderous folly.

Finally conscious of the fact that the peace he had so confidently counted on in Madrid was nothing more than an illusion, Murat at last reacted by sending what men he had immediately at hand: a battalion, a number of Polish light-horse, and two guns to take up position in front of the Royal Palace.

Hardly had they arrived when the soldiers were insulted by the rabble and a shot was fired at them. Without wasting time, they responded by firing a salve in the air to disperse the crowd. But this only led to an aggravation of violence. A second salve, which was fired with case-shot, achieved its purpose. The rioters fled scattering throughout the town and calling the population to arms.


Soon French reinforcements arrived advancing to the heart of the riot, on the Puerta des Sol. Among the inhabitants of the square, at number 9, lived a painter who witnessed the entire scene. His name was Goya.

The murderous rage reached its paroxysm when the inhabitants of Madrid suddenly saw, in the midst of the French squadrons, the magnificent and flamboyant cavaliers dressed in their red trousers and white turbans: the famous Mamelukes!

In an instant, the sight of this elite regiment cast the Spaniards back to the time when the Arabs whom they detested had occupied their country from 711 to 1492.

To the sound of the alarm-bell which clanged in the back-ground, the riot turned into what can only be described as a frantic butchery with the rioters leaping onto the croup of the horses and throwing down the riders and then stabbing them savagely. While others slipped underneath the horses, stabbing them in the chest with their knives to unseat the riders. Goya’s painting, which we used as the opening picture for this chapter and from which we have taken close-ups to illustrate the rest of the text, depicts all the cruelty and the ferocious hate much better than words could have done. His painting is worth a thousand words.

Women and children took an
active part in the appalling
carnage of 2 May 1808

But the Mamelukes who were the pick of the army were not of the stuff victims are made of and they had no intention of being massacred without reacting, and woe betide the occupants of the houses from which shots had been fired!

When they found one of their comrades lying in front of a monastery mortally wounded, the Mamelukes stormed the building and took their revenge on the monks in their own way. After slaughtering the assassins, they threw their heads out of the windows.

It is pointless to enumerate or dwell upon the atrocities that were committed on this sinister day of madness.

Completely surrounded by French troops which arrived in ever increasing numbers, the rioters progressively retreated.


Towards 2 p.m., the two Spanish ministers, previously mentioned, asked Murat to stop the struggle in an attempt to restore order.

He agreed, and gave them General Harispe, chief-of-staff of Marshal Moncey, to assist them and the three of them accompanied by several French and Spanish officers under the escort of a French cavalry patrol went through the streets of Madrid waving a white flag:

“Peace, citizens, everything is over!”

And in effect, everything might well have been over rapidly, and all the more so as this joint patrol which was full of good will had managed to free a considerable number of Spanish prisoners.

But, unfortunately, Murat viewed matters in a different light and he was determined to make an example. Thus a proclamation was rapidly posted on every street corner, from which the following is an extract:

“…French blood has been shed and it cries for vengeance: in consequence, I have decided the following:

“Gener al Grouchy will call together the military committee tonight. All those who were caught during the riots and who were armed will be shot. The Junta is in charge of operating the disarmament of the inhabitants of Madrid. After the execution of this order, anyone who is found armed or who is still in possession of arms without special permission, will be shot…

At our headquarters in Madrid, 2 May 1808.

Signed: Joachim [Murat]

This is the sort of decision which illustrates the errors of judgement that Napoleon made more than once in the choice of his very senior officers for as soon as the proclamation was put into operation far from calming passions, it literally set the city ablaze.

At nightfall, just as the city was starting to lick its wounds, the inhabitants of Madrid heard the distant echo of shots being fired. Those who had been condemned by the military commission were being executed by Murat’s firing squads.


As spontaneity always arouses sympathy, for obvious reasons the rebellion in Madrid has always been presented as a spontaneous movement against the presence of the French invaders. A noble, but apparently false theory.

In reality, it seems that a large-scale anti-French conspiracy had been carefully planned. An officer in the Polish light-horse, Captain Chlapowski, wrote in his memoirs that all the French officers garrisoned in Madrid were to be assassinated on 3 May while attending an important corrida they had all been invited to. But as the plot had been discovered, it had been necessary to advance the day of the massacre. Thus, wrote Chlapowski, “at dawn on 2 May, several thousand insurrectionists rushed into the city.”

Let us now turn our attention to the number of victims as each side was apparently determined to either increase or minimise their number.

Not surprisingly, extravagant reports were published regarding the number of casualties even – unexpectedly in the official French journal of the time, Le Moniteur, which evoked “several thousand” victims. The well-known French memorialist, Marbot, who was present, however, declares that between “one thousand two hundred and one thousand five hundred were killed”, and these figures are confirmed by other sources which are Spanish.

With regards to the number of French victims, the Spanish authorities did not hesitate to go one better. In an address to Napoleon which was bombastic, if not accurate, the Junta of Valencia claimed:

“The insurrection of the people of Madrid, armed with knives, cost you five thousand soldiers!”

But the real figures were certainly very different, and a document which is beyond all question because it is Spanish, the “Manifesto del Castilla”, recorded that there were 104 killed and 54 wounded. Even if we must be cautious of figures that are too precise, we are certainly far from the savage repression that the French troops have been accused of. And it is also interesting, here, to note that despite the numerical superiority of the French – approximately 25,000 men – the troops did not take advantage of the situation. As during an insurrection of this sort it would have been easy for Murat to give the men free rein, and the number of victims among the rioters would have been far greater.

On the French side, however, the number of victims who were almost all caught unawares and massacred in the streets where they were isolated and defenceless totalled over 500 dead and seriously wounded.

Although it has often been stated that the first atrocities were committed by the French, the facts speak for themselves. The first atrocities were committed by the Spaniards and the particularly revolting and savage way in which the French soldiers were massacred is enough to establish the truth.

Far from ending – as Napoleon had written to Talleyrand – the tragedy was only beginning.

The curtain had just gone up for the first act. Its title: Dos de Mayo.

To be continued…