Slaughter in Saragossa: February 20, 1809

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


King Carlos IV

The Bourbon Carlos IV had been king of Spain since 1788. A man of great physical strength and a firm believer in his divine right as a king, Carlos had nevertheless been a weak ruler. Taking little interest in governing, he had allowed his prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, to rule Spain.


King Carlos IV did not seem to have much family loyalty, for he had abandoned his Bourbon cousin, Louis XVIII, to make an alliance with revolutionary France. However, it was really Godoy, not the king himself, who had made the alliance with France. It also was Godoy who, in late 1807, had allowed the French general, Jean-Andoche Junot, to march a French army across Spain to punish Portugal’s king for refusing to close his ports to British ships. And it was Godoy who had signed a secret treaty at Napoleon’s palace of Fontainebleau in Paris to divide Portugal between France and Spain.


Junot led a large French army into Spain in late 1807. In December he entered the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, only to find that the Portuguese royal family had fled by ship to Brazil. With one of his armies in Lisbon, Napoleon got to thinking how inconvenient it was that an independent Spain lay between France and French-controlled Portugal. Only the Bourbon family, thought Napoleon, stood between him and the mastery of the entire Iberian Peninsula, and he schemed how to get rid of them.


Manuel de Godoy

Napoleon’s opportunity came in March 1808 when Spain’s Crown Prince Fernando, who was tired of Godoy, led an uprising against his father, King Carlos. On March 17, soldiers and peasants attacked Godoy’s residence at Aranjuez, near Madrid. They captured the minister and forced Carlos IV to dismiss him. Two days later, the royal court forced Carlos to abdicate, and the crown prince became King Fernando VII of Spain.


Napoleon saw Fernando’s revolt as a great opportunity. He offered to help father and son settle their differences. He “invited” them to the French city of Bayonne, where he “convinced” them both to abdicate and give him the Spanish throne. Keeping both father and son in France, Napoleon made Joseph Bonaparte king of Spain. He gave Naples to his general Joachim Murat, who was married to Napoleon’s sister, Caroline. In this way, Napoleon thought he had solved another vexing problem for his empire.


But Napoleon had not understood the temper of the Spanish people. Devoted to the House of Bourbon, they rose in rebellion against Joseph Bonaparte. Using tactics of guerrilla warfare, peasants (often led by priests) attacked and slaughtered French soldiers throughout Spain. Joseph Bonaparte was forced to flee from Madrid a week after he had arrived there and take refuge in the far north of Spain.


In the northeastern city of Saragossa, Spanish patriots refused to submit to a French army, which then laid siege to the city. Bitter were the battles over Saragossa, but the people time and again pushed the French out of the city.


Siege of Saragossa, by David Wilkie

The French commander finally abandoned the siege on August 17, 1808. He had learned that in Andalusia (in southern Spain), an English and Spanish army had forced a French army of about 13,000 men to surrender. This was the first defeat of a French army since Napoleon’s wars had begun. Other defeats followed. In early August, a British army under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, landed at Mondego Bay north of Lisbon. Wellington drove Junot back and, on August 21, forced him to surrender. Junot returned with his army to France, after abandoning Portugal to Wellington.


Saragossa surrenders to Napoleon, by Antoine-Jean Gros

The news of these disasters convinced Napoleon that he had to take personal control of the war in Spain. At the head of a large army, the emperor entered Spain in the fall of 1808; after fighting his way across the country, he finally entered Madrid on December 4. Once in the capital, Napoleon began issuing decrees, abolishing feudalism, ending the Spanish Inquisition, and closing monasteries and convents throughout the land. And he warned the Spaniards that if they did not lay down their arms, he would treat them as a conquered people and “place the crown of Spain on my own head.” As king of Spain, Napoleon said, he would “know how to make the wicked tremble; for God has given me the power and the will necessary to surmount all obstacles.”


Assault on the Monastery of San Engracia in Saragossa

But such threats could not cow the Spanish. They fought for their king and, more important, for their Catholic religion. Saragossa again gave evidence of the Spanish spirit. Within the precincts of that ancient city, peasant families vowed each to take a house and defend it to the death. The French, who again laid siege to the city on December 20, found they could not break the iron will of its defenders. Over the next month, the French blew through the walls of the city and then began fighting street by street, blowing up houses over the heads of those inside – men, women, and children, who preferred death to surrender. Finally, on February 20, 1809, when the city was mostly a heap of rubble, Saragossa fell to the French.


By that time, however, Napoleon had returned to Paris. Spain was still in rebellion, but the emperor had received word that all was not well in France. There he faced a greater threat even than that posed by the uprising of the Catholic patriots of the Iberian Peninsula.

Music of a Patriot and Collaborator


When Napoleon invaded Spain, the Barcelona-born Fernando Sor wrote patriotic music to galvanize the Spanish resistance to the French. But when Joseph Bonaparte occupied Madrid, Sor took a job under the the new government. For this he earned the epithet, anfrancesado, “frenchified,” implying, basically, that he was a traitor and collaborator. But we do not remember Sor these days for his deeds, or misdeeds, but for his music. Proficient in a number a genres, Sors was the one of the first composers to treat the guitar as a serious instrument. This piece is his Fantasie for Two Guitars, Op. 54, performed by John Williams and Julian Bream.



1,259 views0 comments

P.O. 4638, Ventura, CA 93007   •   844.960.2287

  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle

Interested in Subscribing to Our Email List?

Copyright 2019 Catholic Textbook Project

Privacy Policy