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The Napoleonic Era

Charles IV (r. 1788-1807) retained the trappings of his father's enlightened despotism, but he was dominated by his wife's favorite, a guards officer, Manuel de Godoy, who at the age of twenty-five was chief minister and virtual dictator of Spain. When the French National Assembly declared war in 1793, Godoy rode the popular wave of reaction building in Spain against the French Revolution and joined the coalition against France. Spanish arms suffered repeated setbacks, and in 1796 Godoy shifted allies and joined the French against Britain. Godoy, having been promised half of Portugal as his personal reward, became Napoleon Bonaparte's willing puppet. Louisiana, Spanish since 1763, was restored to France. A regular subsidy was paid to France from the Spanish treasury, and 15,000 Spanish troops were assigned to garrisons in northern Europe. Military reverses and economic misery caused a popular uprising in March 1808 that forced the desmissal of Godoy and the abdiction of Charles IV. The king was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand VII (r. 1808; 1814-33). The French forced Ferdinand to abdicate almost immediately, however, and Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, was named king of Spain. A large French army was moved in to support the new government and to invade Britain's ally, Portugal, from Spanish soil. The afrancesados, a small but influential group of Spaniards who favored reconstructing their country on the French model, welcomed the Bonapartist regime.

To ingratiate himself with the afrancesados, Joseph Bonaparte proclaimed the dissolution of religious houses. The defense of the Roman Catholic Church, which had long been attacked by successive Spanish governments, now became the test of Spanish patriotism and the cause around which resistance to the French rallied. The citizens of Zaragoza held out against superior French forces for more than a year. In Asturias, local forces took back control of their province, and an army of Valencians temporarily forced the French out of Madrid. The War of Independence (1808-14), as the Iberian phase of the Napoleonic wars is known in Spanish historiography, attained the status of a popular crusade that united all classes, parties, and regions in a common struggle. It was a war fought without rules or regular battlelines. The Spanish painter, Goya, depicted the brutality practiced on both sides.

The British dispatched an expeditionary force, originally intended to occupy part of Spanish America, to the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. In the next year, a larger contingent under Arthur Wellesley, later duke of Wellington, followed. Elements of the Spanish army held Cadiz, the only major city not taken by the French, but the countryside belonged to the guerrillas, who held down 250,000 of Napoleon's best troops under Marshal Nicholas Soult, while Wellington waited to launch the offensive that was to cause the defeat of the French at Vitoria (1813).

Data as of December 1988