By 1807 almost all of mainland Europe was obeying the Berlin Decree. Austria joined the Continental Blockade in October 18, 1807; Papacy protested but signed on December 12. Turkey was reluctant, but she might be brought to obedience by the continued cooperation of Russia and France. Portugal was allied with England, but she was bordered on the west by a Spain historically bound to France by her Bourbon dynasty, pledged to the blockade, and (it seemed) militarily at the mercy of Napoleon. Perhaps, the Emperor mused, something could be done—if only by marching through Spain—to bring Portugal to obedience despite British warships controlling her ports and British agents controlling her trade.
On July 19, 1807, Napoleon informed the Portuguese government that it must close its ports to British goods. It refused. On October 18 a French army of twenty thousand men, mostly unseasoned conscripts, under Andoche Junot, crossed the Bidassoa into Spain. It was welcomed by the people and the state, for the people were hoping that Napoleon would free their King from a treacherous minister, and that minister was hoping that Napoleon would reward his cooperation by letting him share in the dismemberment of Portugal.
The brilliant epoch of the Spanish Enlightenment had ended with the death of Charles III (1788). His now sixty-year-old son, Charles IV, though rich in good intentions, was poor in vitality and intellect; in Goya’s famous picture Charles IV and His Family the King is visibly fonder of eating than of thinking, and Queen María Luisa is obviously the man. But she was also a woman; and, not satisfied with her obedient husband, she opened her arms to Manuel de Godoy, whom she raised from officer of the Royal Guard to be chief minister. The Spanish people, sexually the most moral in Europe, were scandalized by this liaison, but Godoy, unchastened, dreamed of conquering Portugal and of carving out for himself, if not a kingdom, at least a duchy of his own. He angled for Napoleon’s aid, and tried to forget that in 1806 he had offered his active friendship to a Prussia planning war against France. Napoleon encouraged Godoy’s hopes, and signed at Fontainebleau (October 27, 1807) an agreement for “the conquest and occupation of Portugal.” The northwest, with Oporto, was to be an appanage of the Spanish Queen; the provinces of Algarve and Alentejo, in the south, were to be Godoy’s; the central residue, with Lisbon, was to be under French control until further notice. Article XIII of the treaty added: “It is understood that the high contracting parties shall divide equally between themselves the islands, colonies, and other maritime possessions of Portugal.”18 Secret clauses stipulated that 8,000 Spanish infantry and 3,000 Spanish cavalry were to join Junot’s army as it marched through Spain.
Unable to resist this combined force, the Portuguese royal family took ship to Brazil. On November 30, Junot entered Lisbon, and the conquest of Portugal seemed complete. To pay for his operations he imposed upon his new subjects an indemnity of 100 million francs. Partly to go to Junot’s help in case of a British expedition to Portugal, and probably with larger aims, Napoleon sent three additional armies into Spain, put them under the united command of Murat, and bade him occupy some strategic points near Madrid.
Discord in the Spanish government played into Napoleon’s hands. The twenty-three-year-old Infante, or heir apparent, Ferdinand, fearing that Godoy would bar his way to the throne, lent himself to a plot to overthrow the favorite. Godoy discovered the scheme, had Ferdinand and his chief supporters arrested (October 27), and proposed to have them tried for treason. Two months later, having learned that the approaching Murat might seek to release the prisoners, Godoy freed them, and prepared to escape to America with the King and the Queen. Thereupon the city populace rose in revolt (March 17, 1808), captured Godoy, and threw him into a dungeon. The bewildered King resigned in favor of his son. On orders from Napoleon, Murat led French troops into Madrid (March 23), liberated Godoy, and refused to recognize Ferdinand as king. Charles rescinded his abdication, and confusion reigned. Talleyrand urged Napoleon to take the throne of Spain.19
Napoleon seized—perhaps had created—this opportunity. He invited both Charles IV and Ferdinand VII to meet him at Bayonne (some twenty miles north of the Spanish-French frontier), with a view to restoring order and stability to the government. The Emperor arrived on April 14, Ferdinand on April 20. Napoleon entertained the youth and his adviser, Canon Juan Escóiquiz, for dinner, and judged the youth too immature, emotionally and intellectually, to hold popular passions in leash and keep Spain in helpful league with France. He revealed this conclusion to Escóiquiz, who reluctantly conveyed it to Ferdinand. The Infante protested that he held the crown by his father’s abdication. He sent couriers to Madrid to tell his supporters that he was helpless before the power of Napoleon. These couriers were intercepted, and their dispatches were brought to the Emperor; nevertheless the news of Ferdinand’s situation reached the capital. Popular suspicion that Napoleon intended to end the Bourbon dynasty in Spain was heightened when news spread that Charles IV, the Queen, and Godoy had reached Bayonne on April 30, and that Murat, now ruling Madrid, had received orders to send the King’s brother, younger son, and daughter to Bayonne. On May 2, 1808—a date long celebrated in Spanish history as the Dos de Mayo—an angry crowd gathered before the royal palace, tried to prevent the princes and princess from leaving, and stoned the French soldiers who were guarding the royal coach; some of these soldiers, we are told, were torn to pieces. Murat bade his troops fire upon the mob till it dispersed. It was so done, in a scene powerfully commemorated by Goya. The insurrection subsided in Madrid, and spread through Spain.
When the report of this outbreak reached Napoleon at Bayonne (May 5), he summoned both Charles and Ferdinand to his presence, and, in one of his calculated rages, condemned them for allowing Spain, by their incompetence, to fall into a disorder that made it dangerously unreliable as an ally of France. Father and mother heaped reproaches and abuse upon their son, accusing him of having contemplated parricide. Napoleon gave the frightened youth till eleven o’clock that evening to abdicate; if he refused, he would be turned over to his parents for imprisonment and trial for treason. Ferdinand yielded, and restored the crown to his father. Charles, longing for security and peace rather than for power, offered the scepter to Napoleon, who offered it to his brother Louis, who refused it, then to Jérôme, who felt not quite up to so dangerous a post, and finally to Joseph, who was in effect commanded to accept it. Charles, María Luisa, and Godoy were sent to live in guarded ease at Marseilles. Ferdinand and his brother were soothed with ample revenue, and Talleyrand was commissioned to house them comfortably and securely in his château at Valençay. Then, feeling that he had made a good bargain, Napoleon rode leisurely back to Paris, acclaimed at every step as the invincible master of Europe.
Murat, who had hoped to be king of Spain, went resentfully to replace Joseph as king of Naples. Joseph, after a stop at Bayonne, entered Madrid on June 10, 1808. He had become habituated to Naples, and soon missed, in stern and pious Spain, the joy of life that in Italy moderated the general flammability of the south Italian soul. He brought to Spain a semiliberal constitution hastily contrived by Napoleon, offering much of the Code Napoléon, but (as Charles IV had insisted) accepting Catholicism as the only legal religion in Spain. Joseph tried hard to be a popular ruler, and many Spanish liberals supported him; but the nobility held aloof, the clergy condemned him as a secret freethinker, and the populace was shocked to find that Napoleon had replaced their Church-blessed dynasty with a man who knew hardly a word of Spanish, and utterly lacked the charisma of time.
Slowly, then rapidly, the resentment grew from scowls to imprecations to revolt. Peasant bands arose in a hundred localities; armed themselves with the old weapons and sharp knives that had made every home an arsenal and every cloak a snare; and took as target any Frenchman who strayed from his barracks or squad. Against French carbines the Spanish clergy raised the cross; they denounced Joseph as “a Lutheran, a Freemason, a heretic,” and summoned their flocks to insurrection “in the name of God, His Immaculate Mother, and Saint Joseph.”20 Popular enthusiasm boiled over, leading to such amputations, castrations, crucifixions, beheadings, hangings, and impalings as Goya pictured in Los Desastres de la Guerra. Spanish armies re-formed and joined the uprising; their united battalions overcame scattered and undermanned French garrisons; their leaders sometimes outgeneraled French officers handicapped by unfamiliarity with the terrain and the inadequate number, equipment, and training of their troops. At Bailén (northeast of Córdoba), on July 20, 1808, two French divisions, mistakenly supposing themselves surrounded by greatly superior forces, surrendered in one of the most ignominious defeats in history: 22,800 men were made prisoners and were interned on the little island of Cabrera, where hundreds of them died of starvation or disease. Shorn of his chief military support, Joseph and his remaining soldiers withdrew from Madrid to a line of defense along the Ebro, 170 miles northeast of the capital.
In the meantime the English government, confident that Junot’s diminishing forces in Lisbon could no longer be reinforced from Spain, sent Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) with a fleet and an army to Portugal. He landed his men at the mouth of the Mondego River on July 1, 1808, and was soon joined by bands of Portuguese infantry. Junot, who had allowed himself a life of pleasure and ease instead of keeping his forces in condition, led his 13,000 conscripts out from Lisbon to meet Wellesley’s 19,000 soldiers at Vimeiro (August 21, 1808), and suffered a disabling defeat. Portugal returned to alliance with England, and the French invasion of the Peninsula appeared to be a complete disaster.
When Napoleon reached Paris on August 14, 1808, after his triumphal tour of his western provinces, he found his traditional enemies rejoicing over French setbacks, and already preparing another coalition against the now vincible consumer of nations. Metternich, Austrian ambassador to France, talked peace to Napoleon and planned war. Freiherr vom und zum Stein, brilliant chief minister in a Prussia eager for liberation, wrote to a friend in this August: “Here war between France and Austria is regarded as inevitable; it will decide the fate of Europe.”21 Napoleon, whose agents intercepted that letter, agreed. War, he wrote to brother Louis, “is postponed until spring.”22
Napoleon pondered his choice. Should he lead his never defeated Grande Armée to Spain, suppress the revolt, chase Wellesley back to his ships, close the Portuguese gap in the blockade, and run the risk that Austria and Prussia would strike while his best troops were a thousand miles away? Alexander, at Tilsit, had promised to prevent such an attack upon him while Spain held him; but would the Czar keep his word under stress? Perhaps he should be additionally bribed. Napoleon invited him to a conference at Erfurt, where he would overwhelm him with a galaxy of political stars, and pin him to his pledge.