The Rise of Napoleon

This famous painting by Eugene Delacroix is entitled 18 July, Liberty leading the people. It hangs in the Louvre, Paris.


After the Armada there was relative peace in Spain under a succession of Bourbon kings, but the power balance in Europe began to shift around 1756 with the beginning of the Seven Years War, which turned into a global conflict that some historians have called World War 0. It eventually spread over five continents, and split Europe into two blocks; Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia and Hanover on one side, and Spain, The Russian Empire, Sweden and The Holy roman Empire led by Austria on the other.

The French and Indian War in 1754 was fought between England and France over their settlements on the North American east coast, the outcome of which was the loss of French colonies to the English. France and Austria joined forces to combat the growing power of England in Europe, leading the English to amalgamate with Prussia. The English prevailed in the political power struggle, leaving France in a much weaker position than before. However, England had a setback when she lost all her colonies in America with the War of Independence in 1775. The American Revolution, and more importantly, the terms of its constitution, was the first domino to fall in the shaping of a new world order that would bring changes all over Europe.

France was now deeply in debt, and to raise money King Luis XVI raised taxes throughout the country causing great hardship. In May 1789 The Estates General convened and the Third Estate took control against the King’s wishes. (The First Estate was the church, The Second Estate was the nobility and the Third Estate were the commoners.) Tensions escalated rapidly, and in July the Paris crowds stormed the Bastille. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was drafted and passed, and during the next two years the political infighting culminated in the Proclamation of the French Republic in September 1792 followed in January 1793 by the public beheading of King Luis XVI.

There was still civil unrest, with different factions clamouring for power and during a riot in Paris in 1795 a young army officer was ordered to control a crowd which had beset the Tuileries Palace, the then seat of government. The officer, whose name was Napoleon Bonaparte, promptly ordered his men to shoot into the crowd. It was this same ruthlessness that quickly elevated Bonaparte through the ranks.

During the next four years, France was governed by the Directory which threw out religious leaders, effectively removing all power from the church. To further consolidate their grip on the populace, the Directory began the Reign of Terror, which saw the trial by tribunals of any suspected enemy of the revolution. Those charged were almost always found guilty and executed. Something like sixteen to forty thousand people lost their lives during the purge.

But the Directory was unstable, and dogged by charges of corruption. In 1799 Bonaparte led a coup which established the Consulate, in which he with two other Consuls became the leader of a centralised republican government. The Consulate began reforming the Republic and quickly established a stable bureaucracy and a healthy economy. Bonaparte concentrated on developing the army into more than just a defensive force. His ambition did not stop at ruling France; he had bigger plans. The English became worried when in 1796 he attempted to invade Ireland as a stepping stone to invading England. He gathered his “Army of England” on the channel coast in 1798, but was distracted by his other campaigns in Egypt and Austria. He revived his invasion plans for England by 1803, but by 1805 he had abandoned them for good. France was beset on all sides now, and was forced to fight against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, and in the same year the French navy allied with Spain’s against the English were defeated at Trafalgar. He turned his attention to his borders with Prussia and Russia, whom he defeated in battle, leaving a very uneasy peace.

The Portuguese regent Prince John. Artist unknown.


During these years of turmoil, Spain was allied with France by the treaty of San Ildefonso signed in 1796. After losing its fleet at Trafalgar, the Spanish became wary of Napoleon’s ambition, and moved troops to their border with France. In 1806 the Spanish forces came to readiness in case the Prussians beat Napoleon, invaded France, and then invaded Spain. Bonaparte had a very poor opinion of Spain as an ally. Nearly bankrupt and politically fragile, the Spanish were still reeling from the loss of their fleet, and resentful of the imposition of the Continental System that banned all trade with England. 

France had blockaded English ships from entering European ports causing England to lose around a third of its exports during this time, though it still had a thriving trade with Portugal and Russia. Furthermore, the trade embargo resulted in the English blockading Spanish ports, causing widespread food shortages. What irked Napoleon the most was that the Royal Navy was using Lisbon as a safe haven when not harassing the French fleet.

Napoleon told his ambassadors in Portugal to deliver an ultimatum which ordered Prince John of Braganza, who was regent for his insane mother, to close all his ports to English ships, impound all English goods, imprison all the Englishmen in his country and declare war on England. Prince John refused to arrest the English in his country or confiscate their goods, and Napoleon ordered the French and Spanish ambassadors to come home. He marshaled the French army on the border with Spain with every intention of invading Portugal, but first he needed permission to march his army across Spanish soil.

This painting shows the Portuguese royal family and all their nobles loading their belongings onto the Portuguese fleet before it left for Brazil with a Royal Navy escort.


Bonaparte offered a treaty to Spain’s King Charles IV, which would divide up Portugal between France and Spain. King Charles’s Prime Minister, and the man who advised him to allow the French in, was Manuel de Godoy. Godoy was extremely unpopular with the Spanish nobility, and because of his public licentiousness, unpopular with the people. But under Napoleon’s treaty, Godoy would become administrator of the Algarve. The population of Spain saw his willingness to ally them with an atheist country against Christian (though Protestant) England as a betrayal. King Charles reluctantly signed the treaty, and Napoleon moved his army into Spain.

The Emperor’s generals arrived at the border with Portugal after a twenty five day, 300 mile forced march. The Portuguese army was riddled with corruption, and Bonaparte’s elite troops met with little resistance. Prince John sent an emissary to Jean-Andoche Junot, who commanded the Emperor’s forces, offering to surrender his country on some very degrading terms.

The English became alarmed when they realised that 14 capitol ships, with 11 frigates, and a handful of smaller vessels belonging to the Portuguese navy were anchored in Lisbon harbour, and could soon be in French hands. More alarming, was the Russian squadron which was anchored in the harbour. The Russians at that time were allied with the French and were watching events closely. 

Admiral Sydney Smith arrived with a flotilla of Royal Navy ships to blockade the port, and Prince John, having realised that he could not negotiate with Bonaparte, loaded his fleet with the royal family’s wealth, and along with all his nobles, left for Brazil escorted by Admiral Smith. In a few short weeks, they had gutted the country of all its wealth depriving Bonaparte of any gains to pay for his invasion.

Napoleon's army marched into Portugal and took control in a relatively bloodless coup.  Much of Portuguese army was integrated into the French army and sent to Germany as an occupation garrison, Though some were unlucky enough to be transferred to the battalions who would later invade Russia. Many would never see home again. 

King Ferdinand VII of Spain painted by Francisco José de Goya.


Bonaparte needed a 25,000 strong French and Spanish occupation army to keep order in Portugal, so he levied heavy taxes on the Portuguese, and ordered the confiscation of the property of the fifteen thousand nobles who had fled to Brazil. It was barely enough, and dissent began to spread throughout Portugal. Meanwhile, the French troops in Spain began a series of campaigns in which they occupied San Sebastián, Barcelona and Pamplona. In March 1808, General Murat entered Madrid at the head of 40,000 troops to occupy the capitol.

The King and his son, Ferdinand VII, fled south, but they were stopped at Aranjuez on the outskirts of Madrid where a mob surrounded them and forced the king to dismiss Godoy. Two days later, the king himself abdicated in favour of his son.

When word reached Bonaparte of Charles’s abdication, he invited them both to Bayonne for their own safety. With great trepidation they agreed, and once there they discovered that Napoleon would not recognise Ferdinand as King, and instead forced King Ferdinand to abdicate and give the throne to his brother Joseph Bonaparte. Napoleon had bolstered his forces in Spain to 100,000 troops, and the king and his son had no alternative but to agree.