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Spanish history in art and literature

A blog for ex-pats and others to share their love of art and books with others.

The day Spain realised that it had been conned.
20 June 2020 @ 00:06

We have looked at some of England’s links with Spain in previous blogs, but I have yet to mention art, which is also a theme of this blog. So, today I am going to tell you about a huge event in Spain’s past, and the artists who were there to capture it on canvas.

By 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte had established himself as ruler of France, but as we all know, his ambition was huge, and he had much bigger plans than anybody suspected. The English became worried about his ambition when, in 1796, Napoleon had planned 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.

In large part, this was because his lust for conquest had exceeded his abilities. France was beset on all sides, and was forced to fight against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. In the same year, the French and Spanish navies came up against the Royal Navy led by Admiral Lord Nelson and were defeated at Trafalgar. Bonaparte turned his attention to his borders with Prussia and Russia, whom he defeated in battle, but left him with a very uneasy peace.

 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, 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 of Portugal 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, and Napoleon ordered the French and Spanish ambassadors to come home. He marshalled the French army on the border with Spain with every intention of invading Portugal, but first he needed permission from Spain to march his army across Spanish soil.

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 people 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.

Napoleon’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. 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, and 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. Some were unlucky enough to be transferred to the battalions who would later invade Russia, and many would never see home again. 

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 him to abdicate and give the throne to Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph. Napoleon had bolstered his forces in Spain to 100,000 troops, and the king and his son had no alternative but to agree.

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 Mameluk 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, the 3rd May, the French rounded up all the surviving rioters and shot them at a number of locations in Madrid. 

   The 2 de Mayo. Goya painted this 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.  Goya 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 still hangs there to this day.

3 de Mayo.

The Spanish military were deeply unhappy with the occupation of Spain by the French, but faced with overwhelming numbers, and as supposed allies, they had agreed with the French occupation army under General Murat that they would remain in their barracks to avoid altercations with the French troops. During the 1st of May, there had been several incidents with Bonaparte’s troops and civilians in the city, but under the agreement, French soldiers were to be allowed to deal with it.

Two Spanish officers had already tried to organise a military resistance to French occupation when French troops moved in, but were unsuccessful in their attempt. They were Captain Pedro Velarde y Santillán and Captain Luis Daoíz y Torres. Captain Daoíz was in command of Monteleón Artillery Park, with four officers, three non-commissioned officers and 10 soldiers as the only garrison.

For reasons unknown to historians, some event on the 2nd of May caused the French to open fire on the civilian population. When the shooting started, General Murat ordered French soldiers to move into Madrid’s barracks to stop the Spanish garrisons aiding the civilians.

When Captain Velarde heard the gunfire, he went to the Artillery Park to assist Daoíz at the barracks where a large group of civilians were asking for protection, or weapons to protect themselves. The two Captains decided to fight the French, and they opened their armoury to the civilians.

With 9 cannon, 120 soldiers and armed civilians under his command, Daoíz now made ready to defend of the barracks. A battery of 24 pounder guns were placed at the main gate facing into the street and were loaded with canister-shot by their military and civilian crews.  A small detachment of French who were stationed near the barracks were captured by Verlarde and their weapons and ammunition distributed amongst the defenders.

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. 

The French commanding officer, General Joseph Lagrange had around 2,000 men in the area, and the French made two assaults on the guns, but both were repulsed and the Spaniards captured a French colonel. A third wave of French troops reached the artillery lines and fired into the barracks, killing many of the defenders including Velarde before charging with fixed bayonets. Daoíz, who had been shot in the hip, continued to issue orders despite his wound, and was wounded twice more whilst fighting the French with his sabre.

A parley was called and Daoíz, carrying a white flag, limped forward to negotiate with a French officer when he was bayonetted in the back. The dying Daoíz was dragged away by his men, who continued to fight within the barracks buildings before surrendering at the request of Spanish Captain-General the Marquis de San Simón. The Spanish at Monteleón had held out against superior French numbers for around three hours. Daoíz was 41 years old when he died, and had over 26 years of continuous service in the Spanish Army. The bravery of the two captains has become a legend in Spain, and their heroic last stand against the French inspired the Spanish to begin a series of small attacks against the occupying forces. These “little wars” coined a new word for warfare. The Spanish for war is guerra, and the diminutive is guerrilla.

More of this story and other Spanish painters can be found on my website at

Like 1


Jo said:
27 June 2020 @ 12:17

Really interesting, love the paintings in particular Sorolla.

animate said:
27 June 2020 @ 15:00

Thank you, Jo.
Your comment is appreciated. Sorolla is one of my favourite painters too.

toolman 22 said:
27 June 2020 @ 17:19

This is an amazing part of history I had no knowledge of, (amongst many more). You have described the events very well and I am wondering when during this did the British join in through Portugal and drive the French back through the Pyrenees? The pictures of the paintings you have used to illustrate the events are masterful in having captured the emotion of the events. I want to learn more about this chapter in Spain's history, so thank you for inspiring me.

animate said:
27 June 2020 @ 20:33

Thank you, toolman.
The next part is well covered by historians. For me, the best way to understand the war of independence is to read the "Sharpe" novels by Bernard Conwell. You could start at "Sharpe's Trafalgar" if you wished, but Cornwell's novels start long before the Spanish War of Independence, and give a ground level account of the battle against Bonaparte. Happy reading!

robin1 said:
28 June 2020 @ 12:43

Daioz was treacherously murdered whilst under the protection of the white flag. You couldn’t trust the French then and you still can’t. All the UK’s problems with the Common Market/EU stem from de Gaulle’s Non, non, non when we first tried to join because he couldn’t forgive the British for having saved France in two World Wars.

animate said:
28 June 2020 @ 15:09

Thank you for your comment, robin1. De Gaulle was a problem for Churchill, too, during the Second World War. Nobody liked working with him, but let's not drag him into the Spanish War of Independence. De Gaulle was no Bonaparte.

robin1 said:
28 June 2020 @ 16:12

Hi Animate......what I should have also said was how much I enjoyed your historical articles and how interesting and informative they are. My previous comment was slightly tangential to your topic, but I think if the U.K. had joined, or been allowed to join, at the outset, we would have been much more committed and maybe had more influence. It was the increasing federalisation of what was originally an economic community that led to Brexit.

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