Chapter 6 - The Retreat to Corunna
Chapter 7 - After Corunna
The Peninsular War wracked the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1814. That war was but one part of the wider Napoleonic Wars that engulfed Europe in a series of wars and campaigns that lasted almost 20 years and stretched from the Atlantic to Moscow and reached overseas to India, the Caribbean and the Near East. But although the Peninsular War was a part of the wider conflict, it had some unique characteristics that made it a peculiarly savage and hard-fought conflict.
In the earlier stages of the Napoleonic Wars, Spain had remained neutral or actively taken the side of France against the various coalitions that sought to crush Napoleon, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the French. Spain saw the opportunity to make gains for herself, while the French had no ambitions south of the Pyrenees. The situation began to change in 1807. Napoleon stood triumphant in Europe having defeated Prussia, Austria and Russia on the battlefield and having cowed the smaller states into submission. His only remaining enemy was Britain, and there he had a problem.
In 1805 Britain's Admiral Nelson had crushed the combined fleets of France and Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar. As a result, Napoleon had no chance of invading Britain with his magnificent army. Instead he sought to bring Britain to peace talks by crippling her trade. By blocking every European port to British merchant ships, Napoleon believed, he would do so much damage to British wealth that peace on his terms would be inevitable. Not all the European countries wanted to join such a blockade, but one by one they succumbed to Napoleon's threats and bluster. By October 1807 only Portugal still refused to join this Continental System, as it was known.
In November, Napoleon agreed a treaty with the Spanish Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy. In return for French troops being allowed to march through Spain to invade Portugal, the Spanish would get the Portuguese fleet and various overseas colonies, and as an added inducement Portugal would be divided into three minor states under Spanish domination. The Portuguese did not wait about to be destroyed. Queen Maria I fled from Lisbon on 29 November along with her family, the Portuguese fleet, most of the merchant ships and thousands of soldiers. She moved to the Portuguese colony of Brazil where she set up court along with her son and regent John. John, later King John VI, appealed to Britain for help. John left orders in Portugal that there should be no resistance to the French in order to avoid bloodshed. The royal flight was, he said, only temporary and soon all would be right.