History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 February 2008

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.


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Blogger just ate my post!!!

Tracy, I had thanked you for pinch-hitting and putting up such a comprehensive post on such short notice. Then I added that over the past few months Scott and I had watched the entire Sharpe series and I always wondered how much was true/accurate, because I haven't read Cornwell's books, and of course those are fiction. I yearned for a simple precis that would explain the arc of the war and the key battles ... so thank you for such a digestible nutshell of information!

12:12 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thank you Tracy for such an informative post. I've always sort of been confused about why the French and English were fighting in Spain. I knew that Napoleon had established his brother on the throne of Spain, but I had no idea about Portugal. Sir John Moore, if I'm correct, was the man that Lady Hester Stanhope had been in love with or had strong feelings for.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Amanda! I should have mentioned in my post that I'm subbing for Doreen whose internet connection went down (technology is so wonderful when it works and so incredibly frustrating when it doesn't :-).

Cornwell's books follow the arc of the actual events of the war (and of individual battles) very closely. The television series sticks pretty close to the books. Some plot details are changed and condensed, but I don't recall any major political/military details being changed. The episode about the early episode (the one where Sharpe is trying to recover the legendary flag) with the two Spanish brothers, one of whom supports the French, one of whom opposes them, captures a lot of the multi-sided tensions of the era.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! I actually hadn't known about Sir John Moore and Lady Hester Stanhope, but I just googled and apparently there as "erroneous belief" that they were engaged at one point, owing to their strong friendship, and he died with her name on his lips. I find it so intriguing the way lives of historical figures are intertwined.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The notion of big powers fighting in someone else's country, of progressive aspirations vs the status quo... of all the heartbreaking ambiguities and complexities...

Sometimes I wonder that we can ever say "historical romance," much less see it as anything but a tarted-up, bitter oxymoron.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I know what you mean, Pam. I think the "romance" part comes from the amazing wonder that love can survive and even flourish amid all the dark, heartbreaking complexities and ambiguities we often find in our research.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

One, perhaps, two, hundred years from now, there may be writers concocting love stories about our generation. History is always messy. Love is evergreen and almost always faces obstacles whether they are external (e.g. wars, genocide, poverty) or internal. It's why romance as a genre thrives.

And if "historical romance" is a bitter oxymoron, is "historical fiction" a redundancy? Sometimes it's hard to figure out what the facts are. And maybe what constitutes "truth" depends on who you are, where you stand, and what you're looking at.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I love examining "truth" in fiction. It's particular fun to examine in historical fiction, because one has the whole question of historical truth and how the truth can shift depending on one's perspective. And then there's psychological truth, which definitely plays a role in romance and plot truth which (along with psychological truth) plays a role in suspense/mystery as Pam discussed last week. Which is a lot of why I find the different ways historical fiction, romance, and mystery intersect so intriguing.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What I love is finding "herstory" as opposed to "history." So often the contributions that women make to history are often overlooked simply because they are women. Part of the reason why I started Scandalous Women was to bring those stories to light. And why I'm excited to see so much historical fiction written from the perspective of women whether they are real women or fictional.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think the "romance" part comes from the amazing wonder that love can survive and even flourish amid all the dark, heartbreaking complexities and ambiguities...

You're right, of course, Tracy (and Amanda, too). Which is partly the hold that historical romance has on me -- the "symbolic" death, the prospect of life without the character one has come to love -- really can come to seem like death, if it means living on alone in the darkness of the historical moment.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I love the stories on your website! And one of the things I love about "The Spanish Bride," which I mentioned in the post, is that it tells the story of the war from the point of view of Harry Smith's wife Juana.

Pam, I think one reason why in a lot of my favorite historical romances, the historical context is very richly painted.

9:22 AM  

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