The Many Sides of the Peninsular War
The Peninsular War was a multi-sided conflict filled with moral ambiguities. Two countries, England and France, played out their own conflict in a third, Spain, while different Spanish factions fought for different visions of the future of Spain. Though perhaps not as well known as Napoleon's Russian campaign or Waterloo, the Peninsular War played a major role in the Napoleonic Wars. It also plays figures prominently in a number of novels. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series brings the events of the war vividly to life (as does the fabulous television adaptation with Sean Bean). Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride is based on the memoirs of the British Harry Smith who married a young Spanish woman named Juana during the war. The war plays a role in the back story of a number of Regency-set novels, including my own Secrets of a Lady. I spent quite a bit of time researching the Peninsular War for Secrets and also for an earlier book, Dark Angel (co-written with my mom as Anna Grant), which took place largely in Spain and Portugal. Lately I've been doing some additional reading on the events of the war for the Fraser Correspondence section on my website, which features letters between Charles and Mélanie and other characters in my books. I realized that in writing about their adventures on the Peninsula, I had to know exactly where they were in which month as the events of the war played out.
In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte, determined to enforce his Continental System (prohibiting import of British goods), manipulated both Charles IV and his son Ferdinand into abdicating from the throne of Spain. Napoleon then installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain. The Spanish Bourbon monarchy had been notoriously corrupt and repressive. Joseph Bonaparte instituted many progressive reforms. A number of Spaniards, particularly intellectuals, supported him as the best hope for reform of the government. However, a strong popular opposition to the French occupation sprang up from the first. Bands of guerrilleros fought the French fiercely throughout the war.
The British sent an expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley to support the anti-French resistance. Wellesley scored several quick victories. Joseph Bonaparte fled Madrid and the French evacuated Portugal, which they had also occupied under the terms of the Convention of Cintra, between the British Hew Dalrymple and the French Androche Junot. Aware of the gravity of the situation, Napoleon took command of the French forces in Spain himself. The French retook Madrid. Sir John Moore, who had replaced Wellesley as commander of the British forces, was killed at the Battle of Corunna. The British were forced to retreat to the coast and evacuate. Supply lines collapsed, the commissariat could not keep the troops adequately provisioned, and the retreating British forces, starving and in disarray, pillaged the Spanish countryside to horrifying effect (events which play a key role in the Mélanie’s back story in my book Secrets of a Lady).
In April, 1809, Arthur Wellesley returned to the Peninsula to re-take command of the British forces. His victory over the French at Opporto on 12 May forced the French to withdraw from Portugal once again. For the next four years, the French, the British, the Spanish resistance army, the afrancesados (the Spanish loyal to Joseph Bonarpare’s regime), and the guerrilleros (who resisted the French) fought across Spain. It was a particularly bloody war (as is so eloquently immortalized in Goya’s paintings) with atrocities committed on all sides.
In November 1812 (when key events in Secrets of a Lady take place, shown in flashback), the British were wintering in cantonments near the Spanish/Portuguese border, preparing for the spring campaigning season. The British had scored a number of victories in 1812, at Badajoz and Salamanca, but the French had forced the British to evacuate Burgos in September. The events of 1813 proved decisive. On 21 June, the British under Wellesley (now Viscount Wellington) defeated the French under Marshal Jourdan at Vitoria. The French evacuated Spain (a number of Spanish treasures, packed up by Joseph Bonaparte’s retreating court, disappeared in the aftermath of Vitoria; many no doubt found their way into the pockets of British soldiers; a number of items were never recovered, including the Spanish crown; lots of wonderful story ideas there, I've always thought).
Wellington’s forces crossed the border into France on 5 October. Napoleon, who had suffered such heavy losses in the Russian campaign, was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba. While the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe was being debated at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon escaped from Elba, took command of the army that rallied to his cause, and fought his final battle against the Allied forces, under the command of Wellington (who had been created Duke), at Waterloo.
With the French gone from Spain, Ferdinand was restored as King, under a new, extremely progressive constitution. He proceeded to repudiate the constitution and abolish freedom of the press. Many of those who had fought in the Spanish resistance had wanted the French out of their country but hadn’t wanted a return of the old Bourbon monarchy either. They now tried to rally support against King Ferdinand. But, as Charles comments early in Secrets of a Lady, the British were quick to turn their backs on their former Spanish allies who dreamed of a new Spain. Many of those in power in Britain (such as Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary), saw the specter of the French Revolution in any move toward reform at home or abroad. Preserving the status quo was the key to preserving stability for these men and for others in Continental Europe such as the Austrian Chancellor Metternich.