By Pedro Prieto
Editor’s Note: It is often easy to find information about a battle that is fought in the vicinity of a city or a village. It is much more difficult to find information on the site itself, other than about the battle. The below article is based on correspondence between Mr. Pedro Prieto and myself, when we were conducting research for another article. It quickly became apparent that we had information about the area, that was not germane to the article itself. We decided that this background information was very interesting and would publish it as a separate piece.
Romangordo is significant for the studies of the Napoleonic because it is the site of one of the few bridges across the Tagus River. Although there was much skirmishing here in 1808 and 1809, it became famous for the British raid on the French pontoon bridge in 1812: The Destruction of the Bridge at Almaraz: 18 - 19 May 1812
To the outside world, Romangordo only importance was its bridge across the Tagus River. The Spanish Emperor, Carlos I, built this bridge in the 16th Century. Although known internationally as the Almaraz Bridge, the local people call it the Bridge of Albalat. This name is also used by the National Geographic Institute of Spain in its 1999 map of the region. The name "Albalat" is derived from Arabic. During the Middle Ages, this area was under Moorish control and until the 12th Century, the administrative capital of the Moorish province, Medina Albalat, was located here. Local legends say that the last Moor who inhabited the castle of Medina Albalat before the Christians conquered it, hid its treasure on the next hill. He supposedly marked its hiding place with a figure of a cat. The hill that legend says it is buried on, is known as the “Cerro del Tesoro” or “The Hill of the Treasure.” There is some question on the exact location of the Cerro del Tesoro. Military maps of the area place it about 500 meters southwest of the Albalat Bridge, yet the local people provide state that is the hill will Fort Napoleon was located. It should be noted that the Cerro del Tesoro is located in a area that the locals call "The Cat!" This region consists of many small, grassy hills.
The map published by the National Geographic Institute of Spain, refers to the hill where Fort Napoleon is located as the “Cerro del Tesoro”. On this hill there are also the ruins of a hermitage. The locals call this hill by two names “The Hill of the Fort” or “The Hill of the Hermitage.” (A hermitage is a place that a person can retreat for solitude and meditation.) The hermitage was built in the 16th Century and in the 18th Century, Don Pedro Antonio Martín, named it "Our Lady of the Water". Today it is known as the "Our Lady of Waters." The hermitage was between 20 and 25 meters long and 10 to 12 meters wide. The walls were about 50 centimeters thick. In 1786, the hermitage was still in existence and the new priests of Romangordo took the possession of it. The hermitage was destroyed sometime during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish built a fort on the hill to protect the Albalat Bridge in 1808 and likely used material from the hermitage. The French occupation of the hill in 1809 and their construction of Fort Napoleon saw more damage to it. More damage was probably done to the hermitage in 1812, when the British blew up Fort Napoleon.
The town of Romangordo sits on a high hill about 3.5 kilometers south southeast of “The Hill of the Fort”. An 18th Century Spanish Geographer sent a survey form to every village and town in Spain in 1786. Romangordo was listed as having 120 families, with 12 – 14 children born annually. The average family consisted of 4 – 5 people. According to Geographic, Historical, and Statisitcal Dictionary of Spain: 1845 - 1850 Romangordo at that time (1845) had 712 inhabitants and 130 families. The size of the average family was 5.47 people. Applying this average to to the 120 families living in Romangordo in 1786, the number of people was 656. According to the records of the local parish church, which go back to the 16th Century, 13 children were born in Romangordo in 1812 -- a similar birthrate to 1786. So the population of Romangordo in 1812 was probably about 650 people.
Romangordo was also damaged during the War for Independence. One source, Geographic, Historical, and Statisitcal Dictionary of Spain: 1845 - 1850, states that the town was burned down by the French, however this is unlikely. The parish records for the period still exist in the local church. However the town council records do not. Records for the period after the war exist, so it is more probable that the French burned only part of the town, including the town council building, the priest's house and some other buildings. The church, with its 16th and 17th Century paintings, was not touched. However in one of the linen cloth panels, called the "Cuadro de las Ánimas" (which shows the Virgen del Camen and Santo Domingo -- the founder of the Dominicans -- floating above Purgatory), there is a hole about 1.5 centimeters in diameter. There is some speculation that the hole was caused by a bullet, shot to see if there were weapons hidden behind the panel!
In 1900 Romangordo it had 705 inhabitants; in 1950, it had 770. Beginning in 1960, the population began to fall due to the abandonment of agriculture and the migration of the young people to the cities in search of work. In 1960, the population of Romangordo fell to 664; in 1970 it was at 352. In 2000, it was 210, but during the summers is rises to over 500.
The town has very little agriculture left. There are numerous small olive and cork trees in the area, usfor oil production and the extraction of the cork from the cork oaks. Additionally, there are many gardens for the raising of vegetables -- including potato, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. However, the area is chiefly used for raising cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Its is also a place for summer vacationers. Thirty years ago, Romangordo had not changed much from 1812, however the influx of vacationers has seen its modernization.
The main arch of the Albalat Bridge was blown up in 1809 to prevent the French from using it. In 1813, the Duke of Wellington sent Lieutenant Colonel Henry Sturgeon of the British Royal Staff Corps to repair it. A suspension bridge, similar to the one he built at Alcantara was built instead. This was the second suspension bridge to be built in Europe!
Until about 1963, a ferry existed about three kilometers down stream of the bridge near the town of Serrejón. This ferry was used to provide access to a flour mill that had been in existence since the Moors had occupied the area. This ferry disappeared when a dam was built about 30 kilometers downstream and and the Torrejón Marsh and Nature Preserve was created. The flour mill and several islands that were there in 1812, were submerged by the rising waters.
The locations that were so prominent in the British Raid of 1812 can be found and have names that derived from the action. The “Pass of the Cave” (Puerto La Cueva) is named after the Cave of San Miguel and this cave still exists. The “Pass of the English” (Puerto de los Ingleses) is not known to the local people, even though it is marked on military maps. However there is a small hill by the Cave of San Miguel called by the local people as the Hill of the English (Collado de los Ingleses).
The local inhabitants still find cannonballs and other artifacts from the Napoleonic Era. When the British captured Fort Napoleon and Fort Ragusa, many of the cannonballs were thrown into the Tagus River. Over the years, people swimming in the river have discovered cannonballs and howitzer shells -- usually by stubbing their toes! These are occasionally offered for sale, but the authorities in Romangordo have been approached about buying and preserving them for a future museum.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2002
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