Peninsular War in Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Peninsular War, in which the British military was primarily responsible for driving the French out of Spain, marked French emperor Napoleon I’s first major setback, while demonstrating the strength of the British army and revealing the weakness of Spain’s monarchy and the political divisions within Spain.

Summary of Event

The Peninsular War, sometimes known as the War of Independence in Spain, changed Spain irrevocably. As one phase of the continental war against France, the Peninsular War was the arena in which the French emperor Napoleon I first tasted a serious military defeat. The war was touched off by the insurrection of May 2, 1808, in Madrid, Madrid;insurrection in which the Spanish army and guerrilla forces turned against the French occupation forces. British intervention eventually provided the military force needed to drive out the French. Meanwhile, liberal leaders redefined the nature of the Hispanic monarchy. Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Peninsular War Peninsular War (1808-1815) Spain;Peninsular War (1808-1815) Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Peninsular War[Peninsular War] Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;and Peninsular War[Peninsular War] Spain;War of Independence Spain;and France[France] France;and Spain[Spain] [kw]Peninsular War in Spain (May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813) [kw]War in Spain, Peninsular (May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813) [kw]Spain, Peninsular War in (May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Peninsular War Peninsular War (1808-1815) Spain;Peninsular War (1808-1815) Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Peninsular War[Peninsular War] Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;and Peninsular War[Peninsular War] Spain;War of Independence Spain;and France[France] France;and Spain[Spain] [g]Portugal;May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813: Peninsular War in Spain[0430] [g]France;May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813: Peninsular War in Spain[0430] [g]Great Britain;May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813: Peninsular War in Spain[0430] [g]Spain;May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813: Peninsular War in Spain[0430] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 2, 1808-Nov., 1813: Peninsular War in Spain[0430] Bonaparte, Joseph Ferdinand VII

The need to coordinate military activities, together with the demand from the British for a formal government with which to ally, led to the formation of a central government in Spain Spain;and Great Britain[Great Britain] known as the First Junta on May 25, 1808. Following the Spanish army’s great victory over the French in July, 1808, the insurgents organized the Junta Supreme Central in December, 1808. The junta signed a formal alliance with Great Britain on January 14, 1809.

As the war against the French continued, the Spanish monarchy’s lack of prestige provoked demands for the enactment of radical measures in the form of a constitution. Constitutions;Spanish The junta then transformed itself into a Council of Regency, acting in behalf of the Spanish Prince Ferdinand, Ferdinand VII who was being held captive in France. It also convoked the Spanish Cortes (legislature) to write a new constitution. The Cortes met in the port of Cádiz, one of the few cities not controlled by Napoleon’s forces. There an elected body of one hundred representatives declared that “national sovereignty resides in the Cortes.” As revolts against Spanish colonial rule in the Americas began breaking out in 1810, debate over Spain’s Spain;constitutions new constitution went on from August, 1811, until its promulgation on March 19, 1812.

The impact of the 1812 constitution Constitutions;Spanish had wide-ranging repercussions. Since it was written in a merchant stronghold, the Cádiz constitution overrepresented the ideology of liberals, who stressed individual rights and limits on the power of the monarchy. As a reaction against the centralization of both the Bourbon Spain;Bourbon Dynasty Bourbon dynasties;Spanish and Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty Dynasties, the 1812 constitution limited the right of the state to intervene in the economy and politics. Reflecting the power of new commercial and industrial groups, the document also maintained that sovereignty resided in the Cortes, not in the three estates or the Crown. The new charter also proclaimed universal male suffrage and ended entailed estates and aristocratic privileges. It required the king to represent, as well as defend, the people’s interests as represented by the Cortes.

Although the members of the Cortes had no concern for peasants and common workers since it was made up of wealthy members of the bourgeoisie, Spain’s new constitution was by far the most democratic charter in Europe, and it established primary schools in hundreds of newly created municipalities. Moreover, the 1812 constitution mandated Spanish Empire;elections in free elections in the colonies. The liberals also wanted to neutralize military influence in domestic politics. To do that, the Cortes abolished the previously rigid distinctions between soldiers and officers. The deputies wanted to indoctrinate the troops with liberal civic virtue. As a result, the Cortes also created a National Guard in 1814 that was wholly under the control of civilian authorities, particularly newly created political bosses (jefes politicos) to whom the generals were subordinated. The Cortes also removed exemptions from civil law and favored guerrilla leaders. Spain’s so-called War of Independence was thus also an ideological struggle against privilege and the traditional state.

Meanwhile, Emperor Napoleon I appointed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, Bonaparte, Joseph the king of Spain, and Joseph claimed that his government was based upon a constitution. That document had been drafted in Bayonne, France, not in Spain, but was nevertheless the first written constitution to be applied to Spain. Spanish support for Joseph Bonaparte, who was also known as José I in Spain, came from opportunistic bureaucrats and several army officers who claimed to be following orders from Prince Ferdinand. Ferdinand VII The most radical wing of the liberals, the afrancesados, also backed Joseph because they concluded that the Spanish monarchy could not be trusted to enact serious reforms. Therefore, the Peninsular War was not only an international conflict but also a civil war. Traditional aristocrats as well as the generally conservative masses soon identified change with foreign invaders.

The duke of Wellington (left) entering Badajoz after his troops breached its walls and recaptured the Spanish city from the French in March, 1812.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The war itself caused enormous destruction of property and life. Society began to break down because the nature of guerrilla warfare weakened the fabric of personal and collective relationships. French troops inflicted cruel atrocities and burned many villages. The brutality of the French forces became immortalized by the shocking etchings of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya Goya, Francisco de . Guerrilla fighters were effective against the French in the countryside but could not protect city dwellers from French reprisals. As a consequence, the urban population often became indifferent to the rural mobilization against the French.

In developing his plan for Spain, Napoleon seriously misjudged the Spanish character. The sheer tenacity of Spanish resistance forced him to use three hundred thousand troops to garrison every possible area in Spain. At that time, Napoleon was invading Russia, and most of the French soldiers used in Spain were conscripts Conscription;French instead of seasoned professionals. Meanwhile, a British army commanded by Lord Wellington liberated Portugal and marched into Madrid Madrid;liberation of on August 12, 1812.

Soon afterward, the British army lifted the French siege of Cádiz. Meanwhile, guerrilla forces and bandits attacked French forces incessantly. Many Spanish priests claimed that killing French soldiers would not be a sin and that Spanish patriots could enter Heaven without question. Priests and monks also spread rumors that Napoleon had imprisoned the pope and reduced clerical privileges. By the summer of 1812, the French did not have enough forces to contain the Spanish and Anglo-Portuguese armies as well as guerrilla onslaughts. Short of money and equipment, the Spanish government offered command of its own armies to Wellington, who crushed Bonaparte’s forces at the Battle of Vitoria Vitoria, Battle of (1813) on June 21, 1813, and drove the French north, across the Pyrenees.

Spanish forces played only an auxiliary role in Wellington’s campaign. The revolts in Spanish Spanish Empire;and Peninsular War[Peninsular War] America were limiting Spain’s ability to participate with Great Britain in the Peninsular War. Between November, 1811, and October, 1813, the Spanish regency government sent thousands of troops to pacify its American colonies. Spain restored order to New Spain (Mexico) Mexico;and Spain[Spain] Spain;and Mexico[Mexico] for the time being, but its control of Argentina, Argentina Chile, Chile and much of Venezuela Venezuela began to slip away. The American revolts also disrupted critical gold shipments to Spain with devastating financial results.

Spanish and British forces did not cooperate well or greatly respect each other during the war. The bankruptcy of the Spanish government resulted in poorly equipped and badly commanded Spanish units that often disappointed the British. Wellington demanded a wide range of powers to subordinate both the Spanish army and Spanish provincial authorities to his command. The British government sent huge amounts of equipment and clothing to Spain. It angered Wellington to see Spanish soldiers begging in the streets, despite the provisions they were being given by the British. Fed up with the attempts of Spanish liberals to restrict his power, Wellington resigned his command in August, 1813, but the Cortes soon reinstated him. When Wellington invaded France at the end of 1813, however, he did not want Spanish troops to accompany him for fear that they would intensify resistance by French civilians.


Final victory in the Peninsular War did not improve relations between Spain and Great Britain. After the Spanish army had utterly humiliated itself during its 1812 and 1813 campaigns, Spanish officers became bitterly jealous over the success of the British forces as well as tactless British suggestions that British officers should lead Spanish armies. Many Spaniards were also embarrassed at not being able to participate in the invasion of France. Moreover, the liberals as well as the monarchists feared that Britain would encourage Spanish colonies to fight for their independence from Spain. Finally, Britain made no secret of its desire for free trade and better access to Spanish American markets and resources. A new treaty between Spain and Britain in 1814 mandated that Spain would never again ally with France, in return for a British promise to remain neutral in the Spanish American wars for independence.

In a desperate bid to regain influence in Spain, Napoleon released Ferdinand VII, Ferdinand VII who received a rapturous welcome when he crossed the Catalonian frontier into Spain in March, 1814. As the French hoped, Ferdinand arrested liberal leaders in May, 1814, and reestablished the monarchy. Rather uneasily, Ferdinand swore allegiance to the 1812 constitution. He eventually withdrew his recognition of the constitution, but the old regime of Spain’s authoritarian monarchy was gone forever and liberals would become a dynamic force in modern Spain.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, D. W. Rod of Iron: French Counter-insurgency Policy in Aragón During the Peninsular War. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1985. A careful analysis of the efforts of French commanders, primarily Suchet and Reille, to subjugate Aragón, obtain supplies for French forces, and prepare the area for annexation to France. The valuable insights of this study are also applicable to other Spanish provinces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Raymond. Spain, 1808-1975. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Broad history of Spain that contends that the aristocracy and regular clergy instigated agitation in favor of Ferdinand and against the French invaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christiansen, E. The Origins of Military Power in Spain, 1800-1854. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Strongly critical view of the Spanish military, with attention to its undistinguished role in the Peninsular War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corrigan, Gordon. Wellington: A Military Life. London: Hambledon and London, 2001. A former soldier, Corrigan examines Wellington’s claims to military greatness, concluding that he was the first modern general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esdaile, Charles J. The Peninsular War: A New History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Well-written and comprehensive history of the Peninsular War that covers all aspects of the war, from lively descriptions of individual battles to incisive analyses of political and social issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">______. The Spanish Army in the Peninsular War. New York: Manchester University Press, 1988. The author traces the composition, organization, and general outlook of the Spanish army during a total breakdown of central authority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gates, David. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Emphasizes the role of the regular Spanish armies but makes little effort to describe and evaluate the role of the guerrillas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovett, Gabriel H. Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain. 2 vols. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Lovett concludes that the common people of Spain initiated a national campaign against the French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weller, Jac. Wellington in the Peninsula. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1999. Lavishly illustrated popular history of Wellington’s campaigns in the Peninsular War.

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Categories: History