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The Spanish Legacy: Portrait of a King – through the Eyes of a Soldier

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy



Throughout the centuries, many traumatic actions shaped European countries’ history an d civilisation, but none is more complicated than the French invasion and occupation of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars (1808 to 1814).  Begun early in 1808, which in hindsight was the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s quest for power, the Iberian Peninsular theatre of operations was begun absorb Spain into the French Empire.  In this researched essay the author touches upon a major cause for the failure of the French in subduing Spain: the appointment of Napoleon’s oldest brother, Joseph, as el rey intruso (i.e. intrusive monarch).  This choice for leader was much regrettable, and sadly an uninspired political decision. Although Joseph was undeniably a man of prodigal intelligence and compromise, he was not the strong personality that the Napoleonic autocracy needed for the Spanish melting pot.

In continuing the political apprenticeship he exhibited in southern Italy as a former sovereign of Naples, he was carried away in the alluring track of Napoleon’s imperial reveries, boundless vainglories, and exceeding esprit de grandeur; under the circumstances of oppressive military joke, he made enemies in the cause of liberty instead of friends – to the foreign (French) imposed regime.

For a long time, this enforced coexistence of opposites ideologies and incongruities (Napoleon against Spain’s Royal Household, Spanish against French invaders and their allies, and liberty against tyranny), had to become the most shambling, shocking, and strident paradox of political intervention which heavily prejudiced any suitable mitigation to the abuses of Napoleonic despotism and warfare against the rights of the people.

In this enthralling historical excursus, the author equally probes deeper with a distinguished cavalryman – Albert-Jean-Michel De Rocca – who left a valuable private account and memoir related to extensive service and military campaigning in Spain.

His memoirs shows the regressive strategies employed by the French troops in Iberia; further, it is of utmost significance in giving an eye-witness account of Joseph’s character and behaviour (which  lacked style, clarity of political plans, military experience, and, beyond his Madrid headquarters, long range geo-strategic plans) through the perceptions of a seasoned French soldier.

In looking back to that convulsive period of history from the advantage of 21st Century, the strident mistakes and social violations which were committed in Spain by the occupying forces can be easily discerned through quite a strong evaluation of political and military dissent.

No matter however, what Napoleon might have done differently; the cohesive spirit of the Spanish people, and their incommensurable Catholic faith, would have supported them tenaciously fighting the invaders.

Napoleon trusted Joseph’s captivating personality and talents, but through limitations in his thinking he did not take into account the Spanish values of political and civic liberties – which had constituted for centuries the highest pillars of the nation, raising both the bar of freedom, and nationalism.

That was the most resounding failure in the Empire’s policies, and the beginning of a military catastrophe.

"Devenu le conquérant de ce pays par les horreurs de la guerre à laquelle tous les individus espagnols prendront part, je serai longtemps un objet de terreur et d’ exécration.

Je ne dois pas désirer de régner en Espagne."

Transl.: "Become the conqueror of this Country by the horrors of warfare to which all Spanish individuals will take part, I will be for a long time an object of terror and execration.

I have not to desire to reign in Spain» [9 August 1808, Joseph to his brother].

                                                       *           *          *

One of the paradoxes of military power and foreign-imposed military domination is to have the governmental institutions de-legitimized by coercive means, and to provide support to the collaborating regime by appointing newly installed personalities to help pacify the mood of the conquered people. This was especially the case of the 1808 Iberian Peninsular Campaign.       

In times of difficult political transition, Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte (January 7, 1768 - July 28, 1844), the elder brother of Napoleon I, was appointed as the King of Naples and Sicily (March 30, 1806-1808); at a later date, he was even called to sustain a role in a strategically conceived political game to have him enthroned as the King of Spain after the legitimate Bourbons dynasty were ousted.  

During a short-term regency lasting from June 6, 1808, to December 11, 1813, José I (i.e. Joseph I) almost achieved a nominal title and ephemeral political power.

Acting on the pretensions and figurative role of el rey (i.e. the king), Joseph failed to engage the sympathies of the Spanish people; quite the contrary, in comparison, he was associated with the misdeeds of his most illustrious brother – causing the name of his house (the Bonapartes of Spain) to be abhorred because they were synonymous with tyranny and despotism.

Joseph was almost daily subjected to abject denigrations and mockery – and one rumour alleged that Joseph abused alcohol. Through these improper and speculative rumours of generous drinking, drunkenness, and easy going joviality, the Spanish had conferred upon him their own nickname: Pepe Botella (i.e. bottle Joe).

The supporters of the Spanish Bonaparte, because of their servile political attitudes, were given the distinguished name of Josefinos – but the Spanish people scorned them by calling them afrancesados (i.e. frenchified), and enemies of the nation.

The afrancesados proved to be a really influential and vigorous group of Spaniards who strongly favoured reconstructing their country with political liberties, and using as a model the post-revolutionary French State.  They thought Bonaparte’s regime could accomplish this, but they were mistaken, because despotism implied having control of social liberty and not allowing forces of change.

However historical facts were, Joseph’s steady efforts to gain ascendancy with the popular will and the general consent remained a fruitless venture, and his pervasive efforts to reach the hearts were always doomed to failure.

One effort against religious buildings (which the Spanish did not accept passively) was that Joseph Bonaparte proclaimed these religious foundations dissolved – and most ironically, paintings from the religious orders went to enrich the collections exhibited in the Museo Josefino[1], an outstanding museum  installed in the Palacio de Buenavista (i.e. Buenavista Palace).

The defence of the faith, and the Roman Catholic Church, were to become the spearhead of Spanish patriotism and the cause around which moral and armed resistance to the French rallied with overpowering élan. Thus the stability of his Madrid regency was never guaranteed through spontaneously rendered affection by the people. A major stroke in politics occurred in the year 1810, when the Venezuelan possessions in South America proclaimed their independence from the sovereignty of the Spanish Empire – and seceded.

During long years of struggle (1808-1814) and bloody military confrontations on the battlefields, Joseph was neither allowed a direct command of the French occupation forces nor permitted any major strategic planning, and he retained the status of a nominal authority.

After the disaster which happened to the French troops at the battle of Vitoria (June 21, 1813)[2]Joseph was forced to submit to his fate; and he finally abdicated as Spain’s monarch.  He returned to France shortly afterwards.  On January 28, 1814, he was appointed lieutenant-général, and charged with protecting the King of Rome and the Empress-Regent.  He was also given the task of defending the capital of France (Paris) against overwhelming Allied forces.

Lacking suitable resources to maintain the fight, he left the capital with the Regency Council on March 30.

Coppet: Memories of a Time

A delightfully painted oil on canvas, reproducing the physiognomic traits and the outward appearance of a standing hussar of the 2nd Hussars (De Chamborant), can be thoroughly observed in all its finely executed polychromatic accomplishment in the castle of Coppet[3] (Switzerland). Endowed of artistic capabilities, Pierre-Louis Bouvier (1766-1836) has left quite a realistic portrait of a soldier who had major service and honoured duty under the military campaigns of the Empire.

Attired in a light cavalry uniform, there appeared a daring cavalryman, Albert-Jean-Michel De Rocca (aka John Rocca), beside his horse, “Sultan”.  A Geneva-Swiss by birth (1788 - January 31, 1818), De Rocca served as sous-lieutenant in the Napoleonic Wars, and left a couple of significant narratives about his experiences while serving on active duty.

The first piece of work is entitled Mémoire sur la guerre des Français en Espagne (i.e. Memoirs of the War of the French in Spain); the second one – La campagne de Walcheren et d’ Anvers (i.e. The Campaign of Walcheren and of Anvers) – references a failed British landing on the Belgian shore (on July 30, 1809, during which British armed forces landed 30,000 combat troops on Walcheren).

At a later time, while convalescing at Geneva, he established a love liason (i.e. connection) with a woman left a widow; and had a secret marriage (October 10, 1816) with Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël, and became her second husband.

De Rocca died at Hyères (Var) on January 31, 1818.

Documentary text

An excerpt taken from his absorbing work on his Spanish adventure combines amazing reflections on the political role sustained by the newly installed monarch (Joseph Bonaparte), and vivid descriptions on those convulsive events of political and military ineptitude through the eyes of the French military.  They outline the enormous difficulties the French had to sustain in a hostile land; and worst of all, the carefully pondered reflections in a conflict which made them lose all hope of acquiring success and gaining firm political control.

This is a kind of psychological dismantling, denoting how a troop’s morale was attacked through silent and progressive hit-and run attacks which proved equally fatal and even most dangerous than any guerrillas strikes.

Therefore, the narrative is important for it corroborates how operations and campaigns were not lost only on the battlefields, but in political mishandling.

"King Joseph had been commander-in-chief since the departure of the Emperor; he fancied that he might attach the people of Spain to his sway after our arms had subdued them, by the well-known mildness of his character, in the same manner as he had gained the Neapolitans; and he had allowed the French troops to advance from all sides into the Peninsula, with the intention of organising provinces, that he might reign over a greater extent of country; it was thus that he compromised the military safety of the armies of Galicia and Portugal, which were five whole months without being heard of.

King Joseph had contracted habits of indolence upon the peaceful throne of Naples. Surrounded by flatterers, and by a few Spaniards who deceived him, he allowed himself to be misled by groundless hope.

Instead of following his armies, he remained in his capital, plunged in dissipation, and regretting the delights of Italy.

He wanted to sleep and reign at Madrid, as he had done at Naples, even before we had conquered for him, supposing the conquest possible, a kingdom at the price of our blood.

He filled the columns of his state journals with decrees which were never executed and scarcely read; he gave to one church the wax and sacred vases of another, pillaged long before by the French or stripped by the Spaniards themselves.

He lavished the decorations of his royal order on his courtiers, who did not dare to wear them in any place that was not occupied by the French, for fear of being murdered by the Spanish peasants.

King Joseph made several promotions in his army, which, however, was not as yet in existence; he gave away places in reversion, governments, administrations, and judgeships in the most distant provinces in the kingdom in both hemispheres, while he dared not sleep even a few leagues from Madrid in one of his country houses.

Like his brother at Paris, he pulled down old buildings to beautify his capital, but he had no money to raise a single new edifice, and the extent of his munificence was the removal of rubbish.

In order to please the people, he endeavoured, by every possible means, to imitate the solemn pomp, the grave ceremony, and even the tedious piety of his predecessors.

He marched on foot at the head of processions through the streets of Madrid, making the officers of his staff, and the soldiers of his bodyguard follow him with lighted tapers in their hands.

All these pretensions to sanctity, his affectation of munificence, and his absurd prodigality, only made him an object of ridicule, when after the departure of Napoleon, terror, which magnifies everything, had ceased.

The Spaniards had amused themselves with spreading a report that King Joseph was a one-eyed drunkard, which made a profound impression on the imagination of the country people: nothing could be more untrue; but it was in vain that he endeavoured to overcome the popular prejudice by shewing himself often in public, and by looking full in the face of whosoever passed by, the people never lost the conceit that he was one-eyed.

On the day of his coronation the places of public amusement were opened gratis, and at one of the theatres a farce, called Harlequin Emperor of the Moon, was played several times.

During the representation, the people openly made applications to the ephemeral situations of King Joseph at Madrid.

Devotees, who were accustomed to interlard all their conversation with the ejaculation, Jesus, Maria, y Joseph, stopped short when they had pronounced the two first names, and, pausing, would use the periphrase, y el Padre de nuestro Senor – transl.: and the Father of our Lord –, lest they should draw down a benediction on King Joseph by naming the saint who was his supposed patron in heaven.

The very good nature of King Joseph came afterwards to be looked upon as weakness, even by the French themselves.

After the great battles had been won, he would go himself to the prisoners sent from the army to the Retiro, and receive their oaths of fidelity, telling them that they had been deceived by traitors and that he, as their king, wished only for their happiness and that of their country.

The prisoners, who expected nothing less than to be shot immediately, made no scruple of taking the oaths of submission required to them, but the moment they were armed and equipped they deserted and returned to their own armies, so that our soldiers called King Joseph the administrator and organizer-in-chief of the military depôts of the Supreme Junta.

The French marshals and generals were very unwilling to obey a man whom they did not consider as a Frenchman, since he had been acknowledged king of Spain; and they often contradicted him, and sought to disgust him that they might be sent back into Germany.

They would have been happy, at any price, to have quitted an irregular war, unpopular even in the army, and the more so as it deprived them of the opportunity of distinguishing themselves elsewhere, and of obtaining high rewards by fighting under the emperor’ s own eye.

This Spanish war was ruining France without even interesting the military honour of the nation.

King Joseph had neither enough of military talent and authority, not sufficient confidence in himself to venture to command such operations as the changes in the general situation of affairs imperiously required; he dared not issue any new orders without consulting his brother; the plans sent from Paris or from Germany frequently arrived too late, and they could never be otherwise than imperfectly executed by one who had not conceived them; and the French troops in Spain wanted that unity in action, without which even the simplest operations of war cannot succeed» [Cfr. Rocca, 1815, pp. 155-162].



February: in the town of Berlin (Prussia), the herald of German liberties, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (Rammenau, May 19, 1762-Berlin, January 27, 1814), a leading philosopher and nationalist, delivered the Address to the German Nation.

His vital efforts were to inspire a deep anti-Napoleonic outburst, and to significantly influence social movements affected with pro-German national liberties.

1 March: the nobility of the Empire is organized.

18 March: Ferdinand VII ascended the throne of Spain.

2 May: at Madrid, the Spanish people rouse up to arms against French occupying forces.

It was the beginning of popular uprising denominated levantamiento del dos de Mayo against the French invaders – however, the insurrection was savagely crushed by Murat’s vigorous repression. 

15 June: Joseph Bonaparte is proclamed king of Spain.

7 July: Joachim Murat and his benevolent wife Caroline Bonaparte became regal consorts at Naples.

14 July: battle of Medina del Rio Seco.

19 July: battle of Baylen: Pierre Dupont De L’Étang’s troops are defeated by Spanish General Castaños.

1 August: King Joseph and the court evacuated Madrid after ever growing resistance to the French.

17 August: battle of Roliça.

21 August: battle of Vimeiro: Jean-Andoche Junot’s forces are defeated by Wellesley.

22 August: Convention of Cintra: the French are allowed to quit Portugal.

8 October: meeting at Erfurt (Saxony): Aleksandr I Pavlovich, Emperor and autocrat of all the Russias, meets Napoleon. A treaty was promptly defined, and its accorded clauses resulted in establishing a commutative policy between the two maximum leaders.

30 October: assuming the command of an army counting 135,000 men, Napoleon enters in Spain.

13 December: the town of Madrid is taken by the French.

21 December: César-Alexandre Debelle is defeated by Paget at Sahagun.

29 December: Benevente; Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes is beaten by Paget.

Bibliography and Further Reading

1. English Works:

Abbott, Jacob. Joseph Bonaparte. 1901.

Glover, Michael. Legacy of Glory: the Bonaparte kingdom of Spain. Scribners, 1971.

Napier, William, F., P., Sir. History of  War in the Peninsula and in the South of France from the Year 1807 to the Year 1814. London, George Routledge & Sons, 18?.

Oman, Charles, W., Sir. A History of the Peninsular War. Oxford, Claredon Press: 1902.

Rocca, De, M.. Memoirs of the war of the French in Spain. An officer of hussars, and knight of the order of the legion of honour. Translated from the French by Maria Graham. London: printed for John Murray, Albemarle-Street. 1815.

Southey, Robert. History of the Peninsular War. J. Murray, 1837.

2. French Works:

Balagny (Commandant). Campagne de l’ Empereur Napoléon en Espagne (1808-1809). 1902-1907.

Beauchamp, Alphonse. Histoire de la guerre d’ Espagne et de Portugal, pendant les années 1807 à 1813. Plus la campagne de 1814 dans le midi de la France, par le colonel sir John Jones, avec des notes et des commentaires. Paris, Germain Mathiot - Mongie - Lemmonier, 1819.

Belmontet, Louis. Biographie de Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte. Lettre politique à la chambre des deputés de 1830. Levasseur, Librairie, Paris 1832.

Chavanon, Jules, Saint-Yves, Georges. Joachim Murat (1767-1815). Hachette et Cie, Paris 1905.

Clerc (Lieutenant-Colonel). La Capitulation de Baylen. Paris, 1903.

Conard, Pierre. La constitution de Bayonne, 1808, essai d’ édition critique. 1910.

Debidour, Le Général Bigarré Aide de Camp de Joseph Bonaparte d’ après ses Mémoires inédits. Paris, Berger-Levrault et Cie, 1880.

Gallois, Léonard. Histoire de Joachim Murat. Schubart et Heideloff, Paris 1828.

Gautier, Paul. Madame de Staël et Napoléon. Paris, Plon, 1921.

Girod de l’Ain, Gabriel. Joseph Bonaparte. Paris, Libr. Acad. Perrin 1970.

Grasset, A. (capitaine). La guerre d’ Espagne. Paris, 1914.

Guillon, Édouard. Les guerres d’ Espagne sous Napoléon. Paris, 1902.

Kohler, Pierre. Madame de Staël et la Suisse. Lausanne, éd. Payot 1916.

–––––––. Madame de Staël au château de Coppet. Ed. Spes, Lausanne 1929.

Lanzac de Laborie, Leon de. Joseph Bonaparte à Madrid (1809-1811). Le Correspondent, 1925.

Lacretelle, Jacques, de. Madame de Stl et les hommes. Paris, Grasset, 1939.

Nabonne, Bernard. Joseph Bonaparte, le Roi Philosophe. Hachette, Paris 1949.

Necker De Saussure. Notice sur le caractère et les écrits de Madame De Staël. Par Madame N. de Saussure. A Paris, chez Treuttel et Wurtz, 1820.

Rambaud, Jacques. Naples sous Joseph Bonaparte. 1806-1808. Paris, Plon-Nourrit, 1911.

Sarramon, J.. La bataille de Vitoria. 1986.

Staël, de, Madame. Mémoires de Madame Staël (dix années d’ exil). Paris, Charpentier 1843.

Staël, de, Madame. Lettres de Madame de Staël à Benjamin Constant. Paris, Kra 1928.

Thiry, J.. La Guerre d’ Espagne. Paris, 1966.

Toreno. Histoire du soulèvement, de la guerre et de la Révolution d’ Espagne. 1836.

3. Italian works:

Benedetto Croce. Storia del Regno di Napoli. Adelphi, 2005.  

Blanch, Luigi. Scritti storici. Il Regno di Napoli dal 1801 al 1806 e la campagna del Murat nel 1815. Il Mulino 2001.  

Le leggi penali di Giuseppe Bonaparte per il Regno di Napoli (1808). Cedam 1998.

Valente, Angela. Gioacchino Murat e l’ Italia meridionale. Einaudi 1976.

4. Spanish works:

Arteche y Moro. Guerra de la Independencia. 1868-1903.

Artola, Miguel. Los afrancesados. Madrid, 1989.

Priego (Servicio historico militar). Guerra de la Independencia. 1966.

Villa-Urrutia. El rey José Napoléon. 1927.


[1] Preservation and patronage of the Arts, seemed a rather distinguished feature in the new regime. Preservation, however the primary meaning of this term is, should need careful attention. One episode would shed most delicate light on the afore mentioned circumstances. At the suppression of the religious houses, the College of San Bartolomé de Salamanca was one of the many buildings of sacred life closed down. Under these circumstances, a true masterpiece, the Silos Apocalypse, was sent to the Royal Library in Madrid. On May 9, 1840, the British Museum acquired the Silos Apocalypse from one distinguished aristocrat, the Comte de Survilliers – under the styled pseudonym, there was none other than the erstwhile monarch Joseph Bonaparte. There is every coincidence that the manuscript had been “saved” from the Royal Library before the French fled Spain.

[2] The Battle of Vitoria (175 miles northeast of Madrid) was fought between Arthur Wellesley’s (52,000 British), and his Spanish-Portuguese Allies (respectively: 25,000 men; 28,000 soldiers), against the French army.Under the circumstances, the Allied Powers counted on the active capabilities of nearly 105,000 men, plus some 96 artillery pieces. The French were led by King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. They had 60,000 troops: 49,000 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 138 guns. Losses to the Allied were estimated at 5,158 (dead and wounded): British, 3,675; Portuguese: 921; Spanish: 562. The French counted 5,000 dead and wounded, plus 3,000 prisoners.

[3] The painting is exhibited as a decorative addition in the bedroom of Madame De Staël.  



 Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2008


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