The Second of May 1808: The Charge of the Mamelukes by Francisco de Goya, 1814.
Napoleon left Paris on April 2, 1808, and arrived at the chateau of Marracq, in Bayonne, on April 20. There he received Ferdinand and his reduced court. Upon approaching France, the pseudo-king had become reluctant to enter that country. At Vitoria, his two principal counselors, Canon Escoïquez (who was also his confessor) and his First Gentleman, Cevallos, advised him not to go any farther, despite the assurances of Savary, who quickly reported to Bayonne. Savary returned to Ferdinand with the following letter from the emperor, which convinced the young king to complete his journey: “I say to Your Highness, to the Spanish people, and to the entire world, that if the abdication of King Charles was a voluntary act, if he was not forced to it by the insurrection and riots of Aranjuez, he will make no difficulty in accepting it, and I will recognize Your Royal Highness as King of Spain. I therefore wish to discuss this topic with you….” Napoleon’s position had not changed: he wished to arbitrate the Spanish royal conflict that had been submitted to him by the interested parties.
At their first meeting, Ferdinand made a terrible impression on the emperor. The man inspired revulsion. The security of France and the well-being of Spain could not be based on such a man. He was obviously a puppet in the hands of a faction of the nobility and the clergy. As the future would confirm, his only influence lay in the disgust inspired in the Spanish nation by his parents. Was Napoleon condemned to choose between cholera and the plague?
That same evening, Napoleon had Savary deliver a deliberately provocative proposal to Ferdinand, a proposal whose purpose was to place a very high bar for the coming negotiations: the renunciation of his crown in favor of his father, in exchange for the modest crown of Etruria. Ferdinand and his counselors loudly expressed their indignation. This was the starting point for substantive discussions.
Negotiations opened under these conditions while waiting for the other party. Escoïquez ardently defended his master’s position. In return for his recognition as king, Ferdinand promised a government “completely devoted to Napoleon.” That would be the best solution. But what assurance did Napoleon have that Ferdinand would fulfill his promises, knowing the hostile sentiments of the prince and his advisors toward France in general and the emperor in particular? When Napoleon did not respond, Escoïquez went so far as to promise that Spain would place one of its northern provinces in French hands as a guarantee of its loyalty.
In order to decide, Napoleon next had to learn the attitude of the other protagonist, Charles IV.
The family reunion that took place on April 30 avoided becoming a fistfight. It was difficult to decide which spectacle was more painful: that of the father hugging his son while calling him by all his names, or his mother outbidding the king. And all this in the presence of Godoy, her paralyzed lover.
Charles IV’s purpose and attitude convinced Napoleon that the only thing that really mattered to the king was to deny the Spanish throne to his son. Charles formalized that position in a letter to the Prince of the Asturias on May 2, in which he stated that Ferdinand’s crimes would disqualify him from succeeding to the throne and that “Spain may no longer be saved except by the Emperor.”
Determined in his mind but continuing to negotiate with Escoïquez, the emperor inclined somewhat toward the replacement of Ferdinand by Joseph Bonaparte, recalled from Naples where Murat had replaced him. Yet, nothing was officially decided. Something still held him back. The affair would come to a brutal crisis on May 5.
The Madrid Trap
That day, news reached Bayonne of a bloody riot on May 2 in Madrid, the famous “Dos de Mayo” made notorious by Goya. Napoleon’s critics characterize his interview with the Spanish royal family as “the Bayonne Trap.” What a false judgment! In reality, the trap was for Napoleon in Madrid.
Agitators had presented the announcement of the departure of the princes from the capital, summoned to their father, as if it were a kidnapping by the French army. Madrid became inflamed by the news. Those French soldiers who were caught off guard were massacred with stupefying savagery. The Spanish army joined the rioters. The next day, Murat struck back hard at the insurrection. Thousands of deaths occurred.
This bloody event caused Napoleon to commit the greatest error of judgment of his entire reign. Everything suggested that Ferdinand’s partisans had organized the uprising. Brought into the emperor’s presence, the queen went so far as to strike her son in the face, daring to call him a bastard and to speak of sending him to the scaffold.
In this tragic setting, Napoleon also lost his temper. He sternly ordered Ferdinand to recognize his father as the legitimate king by midnight and to let this recognition be known in Madrid. If not, he would be treated as a rebel. Ferdinand did not resist, but accepted the proposition and agreed to retreat in comfort to the chateau of Valencay, offered by Talleyrand.
That same day, Charles IV formally fulfilled his promise to cede to the emperor all his rights to the throne of Spain, in exchange for the chateaux of Compiegne and Chambord and a very comfortable stipend. Thus, on May 5, 1808, the Bourbons of Spain voluntarily renounced their throne.
When Joseph succeeded him a few days later, Ferdinand found everything acceptable and promised “the allegiance that I owe to you, just as do all the Spaniards who are with me.” This was the individual to whom Napoleon was supposed to entrust the security of France!
Instead of calming the situation, Ferdinand’s impulsive decision actually aggravated matters. Neither his proclamation to the Spaniards nor Joseph’s recognition by a committee of Spanish notables changed the spreading agitation. Soon, with the support of the Spanish army, this agitation became a general partisan war, from which the term “guerrilla” took its name.
A spiral of failure began. On June 14, Admiral Rosily surrendered to the Spanish at Cadiz. Two days after Joseph’s entry into Madrid, on July 22, General Dupont surrendered in open country at Bailen. Almost 20,000 French soldiers capitulated to General Castanos without a fight. Joseph had to flee ignominiously from his capital.
The dishonorable surrender at Bailen resounded across Europe. It struck a serious blow to the Grand Armeé’s reputation of invincibility, thereby encouraging France’s enemies who were lying in wait.
Obviously, the British did not delay in sticking their noses in. On August 30, the mediocre Junot capitulated at Cintra to Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, quickly exploiting France’s difficulties. The fatal war in Spain had begun.
One cannot ignore Napoleon’s own responsibility in the Spanish affair. The considerations discussed here are intended only to clarify certain matters.
On that fateful May 5, Napoleon had committed the capital mistake of demanding that Ferdinand renounce the Spanish throne so as to pass it to a member of the Bonaparte house. The thirst for vengeance for the French blood shed on May 2 and the absolute lack of confidence that the Bourbons of Madrid inspired in him might explain a human reaction, but not justify the decision of a head of state, who must never give way to anger.
If the riots of May 2 had not occurred, would matters have turned out differently? It was not impossible that Escoïquiz could be brought to offer convincing guarantees. The negotiations were moving in that direct prior to May 5. Would such guarantees have been reliable? That is impossible to determine, but the outcome could hardly have been worse than the revolt of all of Spain.
The riot of May 2 had become the detonator of the Spanish tragedy. Who had instigated it? The rioters of Madrid had attacked the French soldiers while shouting “death to the infidels!” The monks and priests had preached revolt against Napoleon, “the antichrist.” The soldiers were called “servants of the devil” or “troops of Voltaire.” At Oviedo, the furor of Canon Llano Ponte was striking. At the head of a mob that slaughtered 38 soldiers of the garrison of Valencia was the Canon Calvo, etc.
Those notables who favored France, and there were many such, were not spared. At Badajoz, the Count of Torre was torn to pieces. At Seville, the Count of Aguila was shot while hanging from a balcony. At Cadiz, General Solano was stabbed and decapitated. At Malaga, General Trujillo was burned alive.
Everything pointed to a fanatical local clergy, opposed to progress and leading the people under their influence in a vengeful crusade against the anti-clericism of the Revolution. The hypersensitive Spanish nationalism provided fertile ground for—but not the cause of—this uprising. To give an example, here is an extract from a Spanish catechism of that era:
From whence did Napoleon come? From the inferno and from sin! What are his principal methods? To deceive, to steal, to assassinate, and to oppress. Is it a sin to kill Frenchmen? On the contrary, that action is worthy of merit from the country if, by this means, we are delivered from insults, from theft, and from trickery!
This was a true incitement to murder, a blend of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic fanaticism.
Yet, the local clergy would not have acted in such an extreme manner if they had not been encouraged to do so by the Roman Curia. Certain high prelates had never accepted the Concordat that had trimmed the power of the Church in France. In their eyes, Napoleon’s greatest crime was to have established the principle of laicism. His recent quarrels with the Pope had not improved his image among Catholics. On May 12, Pius VII decided to refuse investiture to bishops nominated by the emperor, contrary to what had been agreed. Ten days later, he forbad his subjects to swear allegiance to the French government. To top it off, the Pope asked all Spanish bishops not to recognize Joseph, “this freemason king, heretic and Lutheran as are all the Bonapartes and the French nation.”
In reality, Napoleon had accorded great religious tolerance to Spain, especially with regard to the status of Jews, to whom he had just granted freedom of religion in France. In attempting to avoid the English plague and the Bourbon cholera, Napoleon had contracted the Roman rabies. He would now deal with a holy war as well as a nationalist uprising. If one concedes that this war of atrocities was the grave of the Empire, it is no exaggeration to assert that the papacy had dug that grave.
As for military operations, under the circumstances Napoleon had no choice. He had to reestablish order in Spain as quickly as possible.