Volume II

“This combination brought about my downfall.
All the circumstances of my disasters are
connected with this enterprise”
(Napoleon, evoking the Peninsular War)

Thus, Napoleon had decided that it was his elder brother Joseph - and not Murat whose hopes had all been dashed - who was to be seated on the Spanish throne.

In Chapters 40 and 41, we discovered the Bonaparte family. In 1808, Joseph, the eldest, arrived from Naples where he had exercised a power which was nothing more than the application of Napoleon’s will. For him, his “nomination” as King of Spain only represented his right of primogeniture and this new dignity – like all the other honours which his brother had lavished upon him - dissatisfied him.


Another serious error made by Napoleon who in this enterprise, unfortunately, made a great many errors was due to the fact that he was familiar with French customs and thus he thought that the most virulent opposition would come from the aristocracy and the clergy. But as things turned out, they inclined towards their own interests. One example is this cardinal, the Archbishop of Toledo, Louis de Bourbon, who was a cousin of Charles IV, and who as early as May 22nd, wrote to Napoleon:

“The transfer of the Spanish Crown makes it my pleasant duty according to God to pay the tribute of my love, my fidelity and my respect to Your Imperial Majesty.”

After receiving a profession of allegiance which was as servile as this, why worry about a few uprisings among the ordinary people? Napoleon was firmly convinced that things would settle down once the new king arrived.

After an important dignitary of the church had pledged his alliance, the Emperor was certain that the people would follow suit. But, unfortunately, the ordinary people were not acquainted with grand clergymen of high rank. The only priests they knew were the priests and monks who wandered about the countryside asking for food in exchange for a sermon and a few fine words. The clergymen who did the field-work and who, in theory at least, shared their everyday life.

The monks and priests who were the instigators of the slaughter of
French soldiers

But this was only in theory, for one only has to read the memoirs and souvenirs of the soldiers of the Grand Army who at one time or another served in the Peninsular to begin to understand what the Spanish clergy was really like at the time (see Chapter 43).

And to crown it all, the Emperor had even questioned Murat before he left Madrid as to the possibility of introducing the Code Napoléon, the French civil code in Spain!

Napoleon’s magnificent Civil Code in a land which was hopelessly behind times and completely besotted by religious fanaticism!


In a manifest dated 25 May addressed to the Spanish people, Napoleon was still filled with idle fancies:

“I want the remote descendants of your nephews to remember me and say: he is the regenerator of our country.”

It is regrettable here to have to point out all these marks of improvisation and errors of judgement made by a man who bears the stamp of genius. But as we already wrote in our last chapter, we must never forget that they originated from the task he had set for himself and which was vital for France: to prevent England, the mortal enemy, from doing any more harm. And Spain - a land of which he knew nothing - seemed of little importance compared to the other powerful monarchies: Austria, Prussia, and Russia which he had vanquished after they had declared war on him.

And while on the subject of ruining English trade he had - at that moment at least – every reason to be satisfied. His Continental Blockade against English commerce was apparently operational and stretched roughly speaking from Riga to Odessa comprising Hamburg, Amsterdam, Le Havre, Bordeaux, Lisbon, Cadiz, Marseilles, Naples, Venice and Constantinople (see map of the period above).

As for his great “friend”, the Tsar Alexander, he apparently declared that he would acknowledge “such sovereign as the Emperor Napoleon would appoint to the Spanish throne.”

So why should the Emperor have had any misgivings?

And yet he had disregarded two elements, two ferments that would provoke a state of agitation and fury in Spain: religion and the people.

We have already looked at the grass root representatives of the Spanish clergy. Let us now turn towards their sheep.

Napoleon didn’t realize that the Spaniards were attached to their monarchy just as the French were attached to their Revolution and for them he and his men were the evil representatives and the incarnation of the ignominious French Revolution. Of course, no one in Spain had heard of the Concordat (1801) when First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, had opened the doors of the churches again in France, thus restoring religious peace.

And moreover, what horrified the Catholics in Spain who were fanatical was the fact that Napoleon with his Code had placed Jews on equal footing with Christians!


In one of our previous chapters we also wrote that Napoleon knew the Spanish sovereigns who had been deposed better the than the Spanish people. Which was true.
The people who were fanatical by nature had also inherited a particular form of cruelty from the Moorish conquerors who were finally vanquished and expulsed after an occupation which lasted for over seven centuries. And it was this form of cruelty exacerbated by religious superstition which was to give the war in Spain its terrible character of savage cruelty which the soldiers in the Grand Army had never before encountered in their previous campaigns.

Once the Spanish people started fighting the French, they continued the combat and fought them as they had fought against the Arabs invaders and when, between 10 and 20 May, news of the events which had taken place at Bayonne spread through the land, the cry of “Death to the infidels” was to be heard from north to south and from east to west.

And this cry was heard throughout Spain.

The first fire was set ablaze on the rampart which had checked the Arab conquest: the Asturias. But Napoleon was not unduly alarmed and to those who expressed their concern, he replied:

“The arrival of the King [Joseph] will dissipate the disorder, enlighten minds and restore peace everywhere.”

But until peace was restored and minds were enlightened, the time had come for slaughter.


For want of French, the populace first turned on other Spaniards, generally those who belonged to the privileged classes and who had negotiated or had been in contact with the “infidels” - whom they called the “afrancesados” - and whom they massacred savagely.
In Valencia, Count d’Albalat was assassinated, his lacerated body dragged through the streets and his head which had been cut off was carried on a pike. The instigator of this fine deed: a priest, Don Balthazar Calvo.

In Cadiz, Marquis de la Solana, the Governor of Andalusia, who was attempting to explain to a hysterical crowd that the French were too powerful to be attacked immediately, was assaulted in his town mansion and tied up like a like a vulgar bandit. Struck with sticks, stabbed with knives and daggers, he fell asking for a priest to hear his confession. But before the priest arrived, the hapless Solana was slaughtered by one of his own officers who killed him with his sword.

In Seville, other atrocities were committed. Count of Aguila was tied up to a balcony and shot like a rabbit.

In Segovia, Don Miguel Cevallos, the head of the military academy, was thrown into a cart and his throat was slit in front of his wife before he was thrown into the river by a mob which was wild with fury.

In Estramadura, to prevent any trouble the Governor of Badajoz, Count Torre, had prudently forbidden any form of public demonstration on Saint Ferdinanad’s Day.

Wild with rage, the inhabitants stormed his residence and chased after him before catching up with him on the banks of the River Guadiana which waters Badajoz. There they knocked him senseless and cut his body up into pieces which were left exposed on the bridge…

And these are only a few examples.


This delirious rage did not spare the French who fell into the hands of these madmen either.

In Valencia, which decidedly seemed determined to distinguish itself for its acts of savage cruelty, French soldiers who had not committed any act of war were driven out of the walls of the citadel where they had found refuge after being denounced by the priest already mentioned above, Don Balthazar Calvo. Calvo set the hounds in pursuit. Although a few priests, for once, remembered the holy mission of their priesthood and tried to intervene, the rabble which had been worked up into a fanatic fury by Calvo savagely massacred three hundred and fifty unfortunate men and women who were unable to defend themselves.

Another example of Spanish ferocity: General René left Madrid on May 24, accompanied only by an aide de camp, his nephew who was still a child and a senior commissariat officer called Vosgien, to join General Dupont’s Corps d’Armée in Andalusia when he and his companions were captured by the rebels in the Sierra Morena.

His aide de camp and the commissariat officer were sawn alive between two planks. René, who was wounded, attempted to escape. Recaptured, he was dragged to the hospital (!) in the small town nearby, La Carolina.

Here, he was saved just in time by a Spanish officer as he was about to be thrown alive into a cauldron, before being stabbed to death at the side of the officer who had just saved him from dying in an appalling manner.

As for the boy, his nephew, he had encountered a more humane fate: he had already been shot dead.

This was the country where Napoleon thought that the arrival of Joseph would be enough to “enlighten minds and restore peace everywhere” and where he hoped to introduce the Code of Law which bore his name.

Let us make a short digression here. Some historians have written that the sight of a nation defending its independence is always, and we quote “moving” while others have evoked with pity – and we feel this is definitely going too far - the “romantic devotion [!] of a people”.

If the resistance of a nation against those who invade their territory is indeed respectable and justified, how can anyone possibly consider these revolting massacres as “moving”? And yet, Napoleon’s soldiers have always been blamed of having taken the first initiative in these massacres.

Whether these strange admirers like it or not, the facts are there and if a war against French troops was justified, nothing could justify these abominable murders which the Spanish were the first to commit against the French who were the first victims.

Unfortunately, the soldiers of the Grand Army soon let themselves go too far in the infernal spiral of reprisals and these were sometimes as terrifying as the acts which had brought them about. But, ironically, in the end they alone were blamed and bore the shame of these acts.


To write that the recently appointed king was hurrying to his new post – for that was how Napoleon considered his brother’s accession to the Spanish throne – would be an exaggeration.

As Murat headed for Naples, Joseph was hurrying to Madrid without haste.

The famous French author and diplomat, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (beyond the grave), wittily described the change of roles in the following words:

Both of them, he wrote, went their different ways “like two conscripts who had exchanged their shakos.”

French ambassador, Monsieur de La Forest

On his way Joseph did his best to make himself popular with “his” people. In Vitoria he made a proclamation in which he assured them that he would devote himself to a nation which was “generous”, that he would observe the religion of his predecessors and that in order to achieve this holy obligation he counted on the cooperation of the clergy, the allegiance of the nobility and, of course, the “submission” of the people.

But his efforts were ineffectual, and according to the French ambassador, Monsieur de La Forest, “...the more fatherly the tone, the more people are convinced that H.M. has doubts concerning his crown.”

It would have been difficult to be more explicit.

Moreover, Joseph’s journey to Madrid was far from uneventful.


As things turned out the French troops commanded by Marshal Bessières (Right) and the famous hussar general, Charles de Lasalle, had to force the way for him. The battle went down in history as the Battle of Medina del Rio Seco which was fought and won by the French on the 14 July against Spanish troops which were almost twice their number (24,000 against 13,000 French), commanded by Generals Cuesta and Joaquim Blake, who was of Irish descent.

Napoleon was delighted upon hearing of the victory and cried:
“Never was a battle won under more important circumstances. It will determine the course of events in Spain.”

Even if the victory in question gave Joseph the keys of his terrifying kingdom, Napoleon's remark reveals his complete misappreciation of the actual situation on the spot.


As for Joseph’s arrival in his capital on 20 July, it showed the new sovereign that he was far from welcome.

His arrival was sinister: shops were closed, shutters were put up and balconies were deserted.

The only sign of life was the cordon of troops that was drawn up in three rows along the streets as Savary had ordered.

The French ambassador wrote to his superior, Count de Champagny, who had replaced Talleyrand as Minister of Foreign Affairs: “On a few streets there were, in fact, rows of houses whose inhabitants were actually at the windows, but they were careful not to step outside onto their balconies, as if they feared that their neighbours might see them on the front line. These puerile details depict public opinion.”

All along the way Joseph had observed at leisure the sort of repulsion that the Spanish people felt for him and long before his ominous entry into Madrid the few illusions he still had left were dissipated.

The official proclamation of the new reign of Joseph I took place on the 25th.

Everything possible had been done to show the new king’s good will towards his hot-tempered subjects: money was generously distributed to the poor, theatres and shows were open free of charge and there were illuminations.

Behind an atmosphere of superficial rejoicing, there was deep resentment.

Another detail reported by the French ambassador, de La Forest, also shows the degree of sympathy that the Spaniards felt for the new sovereign they were compelled to recognize as king. The authorities of the town had asked that the houses which were situated where the procession was to pass should be decked with flags according to custom. The owners of the houses found handwritten notes on their doorsteps with death threats if they obeyed. Some of them defied the threats, but with caution. They decorated their houses, but at the very last minute as they were afraid of being accused of showing too much eagerness at the arrival of the intruder.

Thanks to Savary order was maintained upon Joseph’s arrival in Madrid, but the streets were deserted and inhabitants received death threats if they appeared as the procession with the new King passed by. The inset shows a view of Madrid, circa 1830, where the procession passed (ARR)

Joseph’s feelings were clearly expressed in this extract of a letter dated 18 July which he wrote to his brother, just before his entry into Madrid:

“My position is unique in history. I do not possess, here, a single partisan.”

And when Joseph wrote these lines he was not even aware of what would happen on the day he entered into “his” capital.


To be continued…