“That was when I saw how great and sublime
the Emperor really was. Far from recalling the
terrible abuse that these peoples in their
delirium had never ceased to vomit against
him, his only concern was to safeguard
the town from the calamities of war
and the atrocities of pillage.

Charles de Hédouville to Champagny,
French Minister of External Affairs

Now that the Somosierra Pass which blocked the road to Madrid had been forced and that the way was clear, Napoleon could set off once more.

He sent Bessières ahead with the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, closely followed by Ney and Moncey with the rest of the army…


During this time what was going on in Madrid?

When the news of the Spanish defeat of Somosierra arrived and once it was known that Napoleon in person was at the head of the army which had just been victorious, the joy which reigned in Madrid since Baylen, since Joseph’s flight and since the first siege of Saragossa (June-August 1808) had been raised, was rapidly dissipated. It gave way not only to a climate of anxiety but also to fierce and fanatical determination.

The churches once more quivered with the incantations and imprecations chanted by the priests delivering their sermons from their pulpits. Madrid was placed in a state of defence, streets were unpaved and the walls surrounding the city as well as the main gates of the town Recoletos, Santa Barbara and Alcala were fortified.

In addition to the 8,000 regular troops that were there to defend the city, there were also some forty thousand peasants who arrived from the neighbourhood eager to play their part in the “Holy War”. They were by supported by 100 pieces of artillery which were placed at strategic points.

A general view of Madrid
at the time

All were under the orders of a military junta which was presided by the Marquis de Castelar.
Thus, everything apparently seemed to indicate that their means of defence were considerable.

But, as in so many cases under difficult circumstances, there were differences of opinion which in the present case opposed the civilian authorities to the military authorities.

The former, who were mainly concerned with their riches and property were in favour of a compromise, whereas the latter – and they represented the majority as they included the lower classes who had nothing to lose and were manipulated by the monks were in favour of a fight to death. And they demanded arms.

The authorities of Madrid had learnt to be cautious and they feared the enemy who was no longer very far away less than their own compatriots and they were afraid that their refusal to distribute arms would inevitably provoke an extremely violent reaction. They thought it wiser, therefore, to rapidly leave the capital and to seek refuge, first at Aranjuez, then at Badajoz. Some 300 kilometres from Madrid!

As imposing as a fortress,
the Castle of Madrid


It has often been written that Napoleon resorted only to violence, yet what did he do when he arrived in front of Madrid?

With the events of May 2 still present in his mind, he was reluctant to expose Madrid to the horrors of war by launching an attack. And despite the fact that he still had no certainty as to the position of the Anglo-Spanish troops, he was reluctant to force his way into Madrid. He preferred to enter into negotiations.

Thus, it was in a spirit of conciliation based on considerations that were both humane and practical capturing a large city by force is a long venture which is costly in human lives that Napoleon, who had arrived on 2 December on the heights of Chamartain from where he could see the town, instructed Marshal Bessières, who commanded the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, to send one of his aides de camp, Major de Soulages, to summon Madrid to surrender.

Napoleon spared no effort to make Madrid capitulate without storming the city to avoid
a new outbreak of violence like on 2 May

For the gorgeously uniformed cavalryman, this mission was almost his last. Soon surrounded by a howling mob filled with hatred, he only owed his life to a detachment of Spanish soldiers of the regular army who rescued him and escorted him back behind French lines.


The Junta then decided to send a Spanish general to negotiate with Napoleon and he arrived bearing the terms of the resolution of the authorities of Madrid. Terms which may be summed up as follows:

“The town will bury itself beneath its ruins before surrendering.”

One detail gives an idea of the state of mind which reigned at the time in Madrid: after bringing the answer, the general bearing the message proceeded to write up an official report of his mission himself and he then had the document certified by the members of his escort.

The mere sight of their “sinister faces [and] fierce looks” was enough to make all the witnesses understand that unless a solution could be negotiated, Madrid would only be captured in bloodshed and slaughter.

And this impression was confirmed by deserters from the Walloon Guards, who had previously been in the service of the Spanish Crown, and who reported the recent massacre of one of the town officials, who was considered a partisan of the French, the Marquis de Pèrales. After being stabbed to death with daggers by the populace, his body had been cut into pieces before his limbs were scattered throughout the town. His crime? He was supposed to have given orders to have the gunpowder in the cartridges replaced by sand.


One of the divisions of Marshal Victor’s Corps had arrived on the spot by now and Napoleon detached one of Victor’s brigades and directed it towards the suburbs, supported by several squadrons commanded by General Lauriston and four pieces of artillery from the Imperial Guard.

And, in order to clearly indicate his determination in the face of fanatical rebel forces, Napoleon ordered the thirty guns he had already placed opposite the castle and Retiro Park to open fire on the wall surrounding the city and to open up a breach.

French troops then stormed in under a violent fire and a shower of stones which were thrown from the windows and they took possession of Retiro and of the entrance of the main street of Alcala. From here they could bombard the entire city.

Then, Napoleon ordered a cease fire.

At this juncture, Napoleon judged it was time to make another endeavour to avoid the worst and during the night of the 2-3 December, he sent another messenger, a Spanish artillery colonel who had been captured during the battle of Somosierra (See chapter 53).

In a letter addressed to “The Commander of the town of Madrid”, we read these lines, dictated according to the Emperor’s instructions and sent by Marshal Alexander Berthier, the Major General of the Grand Army:

During the negotiations, combats raged and French troops encountered violent resistance as they stormed through the gate of Alcala

“As the circumstances of war have led the French army before the gates of Madrid and as all our dispositions have been made to capture the town by force, I think it is only fitting and in conformity with the customs of all nations to summon you, General, not to expose such an important town to the horrors of an assault and not to make so many peaceful [!] inhabitants the victims of the atrocities of war…”

This old print shows another version
of the surrender of Madrid

On the 3rd at 9 a.m., the same messenger returned to French headquarters with the following answer:

“Your Grace, I cannot give Your Highness a categorical answer before first consulting the authorities of the town and before acquainting myself with the disposition of the people after first informing them of the present circumstances.

To this end, I beg Your Highness to grant me a suspension of arms this day to allow me to fulfil these obligations, and I promise you that early tomorrow morning, or even during the night, I will send Your Highness a general who will bring you my reply.
Signed by the Marquis de Castelar.”

Berthier, with Napoleon’s consent, then sent another messenger:

A detail from the painting by Antoine Jean Gros (1771-1835) which depicts the perplexed amusement of a grenadier of the Imperial Guard as he observes* this theatrical scene of fake humility

“Defending Madrid is against the principals of war and is inhuman for its inhabitants. H.M. permits me to summon you for the third time…”

The rest of the message gave a detailed description and list of the French forces that were present in front of Madrid and ended like this:

“The Emperor, who is always generous in the course of his victories, suspends the assault until 2 p.m. The town of Madrid may expect the protection and safeguard of its peaceful inhabitants, the Church and the clergy and may, finally, expect the past to be erased. Hoist a white flag before 2 p.m. and send commissioners to negotiate the surrender of the town.”

The two previous attempts had failed, but the third summons was successful.

Yet when the Emperor found himself in the presence of Thomas de Morla, who was guilty of violating the terms of the convention of Baylen and responsible for sending French prisoners-of-war on hulks and on the Island of Cabrera (see chapter 49) among the members of the deputation which presented itself before him, he lost his temper:

“You massacred the hapless French prisoners who fell between your hands. A few days ago, you allowed two servants from the Russian Embassy to be dragged through the streets and put to death because they were born French… The incompetence and cowardliness of a general placed troops that had capitulated on a battle field between your hands and the capitulation has been violated…Just look at how the English, who certainly don’t pride themselves on strictly observing the rights of nations have behaved themselves they complained about the convention that was signed in Portugal, yet they executed it. Violating a military convention is renouncing all civilisation, it is lowering yourself to the same level as Bedouins in the desert…You are attempting to invoke the people in vain. If you cannot calm the people’s irritation it is because you excited it, because you prepared it yourself with lies… Return to Madrid; I give you until 6 o’clock tomorrow morning. Then return here only if it is to tell me that the people surrender; otherwise you and your troops will all be shot.”

All the witnessed agreed that Napoleon’s anger was, as often, more feigned than real – a stratagem he often used when he wanted to impress someone – despite the fact that the sight of Morla had quite rightly exasperated him.

But his outburst produced the effect he anticipated.

On December 4, at 6 a.m. – the warning had not gone unheeded – the emissaries returned and once again presented themselves before Napoleon.

And Madrid capitulated.

Napoleon, who was a man of sense lost no time in adopting a certain number of sound measures which would have been well perceived anywhere else, but here, in a context of religious fanaticism they were merely considered as humiliating for national pride and religion.

If the French were the masters of Madrid, they were unable to control the hostile spirit of the inhabitants.

Napoleon would never understand the Spanish people.

To be continued…