The Spanish War of Independence

The Spanish were unhappy with having Joseph Bonaparte as their king,  and when Bonaparte ordered Ferdinand’s younger brother and his sister to be brought to Bayonne, too, the population of Madrid rose in revolt to stop the rest of their royal family leaving.

The 2nd of May 1808 saw a poorly-armed mob converge on the Royal Palace, and Murat called out the Imperial Guard. They opened fire on them with musket and ordered a charge by the Mamelukc cavalry in the streets around the Puerta del Sol and the Puerta de Toledo. The street battles continued into the night, but early the following morning.


Goya painted the 2 de Mayo and the 3 de Mayo paintings in 1814 within two months of each other, but six years after the event and long after the French had left Spain During the occupation Goya painted very little, but when the war was over, he asked the provisional government if he could show the heroes of the insurrection. He did not paint soldiers or nobles, but the ordinary people in the street who fought the French. He was probably not present in person during the riots, and painted these most famous scenes from eyewitness accounts. He was asked to paint portraits of King Ferdinand after he had been reinstated as King of Spain, but Ferdinand did not like either of Goya’s battle scenes, and would not allow them to be shown. For many years they were locked away, and only when other kings and other governments ruled Spain did they see the light of day again.

During the 1936 Spanish Civil War, Madrid was bombed and the paintings were removed from the Prado for safety, but the truck carrying them had an accident and the 2 de Mayo was badly damaged. After the war was it returned to the Prado, where it was repaired and restored.


On the 3rd May, the French rounded up all the surviving rioters and shot them at a number of locations in Madrid. Word soon spread throughout Spain of the uprising and pockets of resistance to French rule sprang up in a series of little wars fought mostly by common people. This type of warfare had been known for centuries, but it was the Spanish who first coined the  modern term Guerrilla warfare (guerrilla = little war.)     During the rioting, Spanish troops in Madrid were confined to their barracks by the French, but some based at Monteleón Artillery Park near to Atocha mutinied and joined the uprising. Two of their leaders, Pedro Velarde and Luis Daoiz fought on the barricades with their countrymen. This painting by Joaquín Sorolla, one of Spain’s greatest artists, shows the last stand of one of Velarde and Daoiz before the French killed them and their men. Their heroic stand is commemorated by a monument in the Plaza de 2 de Mayo in Madrid.    

Joaquín Sorolla was born in 1863 in Valencia, Spain and is recognised as one of Spain’s leading artists. He began his training in art at the age of 9 and by the age of 18 he was studying at Museo del Prado in Madrid. He worked in Rome and Paris, but in 1897 he won the Prize of Honour in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid for his Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the microscope and A Research.

His exhibition at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 won him a medal of honour and his nomination as Knight of the Legion of Honour. Within the next few years Sorolla was honoured as a member of the Fine Art Academies of Paris, Lisbon, and Valencia, and as a Favourite Son of Valencia. After his death, Sorolla's widow, Clotilde García del Castillo, left many of his paintings to the Spanish public. The paintings eventually formed the collection that is now known as the Museo Sorolla, which was the artist's house in Madrid.

Joseph Bonaparte began with trying to revise the Spanish constitution along his own lines with much of the power centered on him. In order to keep the loyalty of the nobles and the church he abandoned the revolutionary zeal that had abolished both during the French revolution, with the result that the Catholic Church retained its power to the exclusion of all other religions. He abolished the Council of Castile, which was accused of anti-French policies and cancelled all trade and internal custom tariffs and trading privileges. Finally he set up a Spanish stock exchange. The new constitution established the Cortes General as an advisory body comprised of the male members of the royal family and 24 others appointed by the king from the nobles and clergy.

A Portrait of Joseph Bonaparte by François Gérard, 1808

In 1794 Gérard obtained the first prize in a competition, the subject of which was The Tenth of August, that is, the storming of the Tuileries Palace. After a string of successes including the famous Bélisaire which hangs in the Louvre his portrait of Madame Mère established his position as one of the finest portrait-painters of the day.


Only a month after the uprising in Madrid, Bonaparte sent out flying columns of troops to subdue any resistance to French rule and maintain security. A 20,000 strong column was led by General Dupont through the Sierra Morena to the Port of Cádiz where Spanish forces held a squadron of the French fleet captive. Bonaparte had given him enough men to free the French ships, but Dupont stopped to sack Córdoba on the way, and then when he saw the strength of the Analucian forces that had amassed in his path, turned back asking for reinforcements.

This picture of the surrender of French forces was painted by José Casado del Alisal and hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  José was born in Villada and studied at the newly established Escuela Municipal de Palencia, which produced many excellent artists. His painting, (not shown) “The Oath of the Cortez of Cádiz” now hangs in the Congress of Deputies in the Palace or Parliament, Madrid. 


Whilst Dupont was returning to Madrid, the Spanish field army commander at San Roque, General Castaños, and the governor of Málaga General von Reding, rode to Seville where the anti-French sympathisers had gathered and united all three of their separate military groups into one force.  They followed and caught Dupont at Bailén on the Guadalquivir River near to Jaén, and by a series of feints and attacks divided Dupont’s forces. After three desperate charges during which he lost 2,500 men Dupont asked for peace terms and was forced to surrender his army of 18,000 men. Furthermore, to the Spanish generals’ surprise, he also ordered his subordinate, whose division had not been surrounded by the Spanish, to surrender as well. This was the first time that Bonaparte’s army had been defeated in open battle, and the loss of 24,000 French troops shocked him into evacuating Madrid and recalling his troops from Zaragoza and León. He retreated behind the Ebro, whilst the rest of his forces collapsed in confusion. 

The Cortes de Cádiz was painted by Salvador Viniegra y Lasso de la Vega, who was born in Cádiz in 1862 and studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Cádiz. After achieving fame in Rome and Munich, he finally became deputy director of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. He died in 1862. His painting hangs in the Museo del Prado.


The news spread throughout Europe, and the many countries that were under French tyranny realised that they could be defeated. Spain had given them all hope. But in Spain itself, the original centres of government had collapsed where the French had installed their own men. Juntas of poorly organised partisans sprang up when the French fled.

Spain now had Napoleon’s full attention and he gave as many divisions of his Grand Armée as he could spare to General Soult to retake the peninsular. The Spanish army backed by thousands of partisan guerrillas was beaten back, losing major battles at Ocaña and Alba de Tormes until they were forced back into the area around Cádiz. In 1810 France had recovered the eagles that Dupont had lost in Bailén. 

Without a government, and led only by military generals, those opposing Napoleon tried to form a new governing body to co-ordinate their fight. Spain still controlled many overseas territories, and some of them had taken advantage of the confusion to declare their own independence from Spain. Nevertheless, on the 24 September 1810, surrounded by 70,000 French troops they convened the Cortes de Cádiz where 134 deputies met to decide how to rule Spain.

The American declaration of independence and the French revolution had shown the world that the old order could be changed for the benefit of all classes. 30 deputies represented overseas territories at the first meeting, but only one from the Americas. One third represented the church, one sixth the nobility and the rest were administrative and clerical officers. The agenda was to create a state where the power lay with a body elected by the people, not with the king. This was strongly opposed by the faction who supported the king, but they were promptly arrested.

The liberalists continued to pursue their basic aims: equality before the law, reform of the taxes, replacement of the feudal ties by freedom of contract and the establishment of property rights. The liberals had the majority, and their votes carried the day and formed the basis of Spanish Constitution of 1812. Now all they had to do was remove the French from their country.  

The Duke of Wellington painted by Francisco Goya.


With the consent and support of the exiled royal family in Brazil, Portugal allowed the British to help reform the Portuguese army, which was led by General William Carr Beresford. They had also asked the British Army to help fight the French under the command of Lt. General Arthur Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington. The two armies under Wellington drove the French out of most of Portugal and established Lisbon as a base to continue the war against France.

For two years after the establishment of the Cortes de Cádiz, the Spanish had been holding out against the French using guerrilla tactics to constantly tie down Bonaparte’s forces. Napoleon wanted to continue with his ambitious plans for conquering the world and was growing tired of “The Spanish Ulcer” that he could not rid himself of.

In 1812 Napoleon began his disastrous invasion of Russia, and he transferred divisions from Spain to the east for the campaign. This was the opportunity that Wellesley had been waiting for. He drove into Spain at the head of a combined army of Spanish, English and Portuguese and took Salamanca back from the French and the following year Madrid. Unable to ask for reinforcements, General Soult led a withdrawal of the exhausted French army pursued by Wellington through the Pyrenees during the winter of 1813–1814. The following year, Napoleon abdicated, and Spain was free again.

The Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell began writing the Sharpe novels in 1980 and is still writing them. They are set during the Spanish/English/Portuguese war against Napoleon and begin in 1799 with the first novel, Sharpe’s Tiger. The novels depict the life of a soldier in Wellington’s army as it fights in Spain to repel the French army. There are 21 novels in the Sharpe series, and some of the books have been made into a 14 episode television series starring Sean Bean. Not all the Sharpe books are set in Spain, but all are set within the time frame of the Napoleonic wars.

Below is a link to Bernard Cornwell’s web-page, and a second link leads to other historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars.